Invasion of the smart machines

MY house isn’t smart enough. To get inside it I have to open the door myself. With a key. When I walk in, a digital voice doesn’t greet me, realise I’ve had a bad day and tell me a joke to cheer me up (I’m imagining a soothing voice like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey). I have to clean my own dishes, wash my own clothes, unblock my own toilet. I am essentially living in unspeakable Dickensian squalor; a latter-day street urchin being sent, every day, to scrub the filthy chimney of my existence.

But there is hope. Intel’s European boss Tristan Wilkinson tells me the technology giant, which churns out more chips than McCain, has a dream of putting a microchip inside anything with a plug. This will presumably lead to a utopia where blenders not only dice vegetables, but get out in the garden and plant them; three-bar hearers trundle after your grandmother during the winter, and irons not only de-crease your clothes but detect whether they are hideous and, if they are, set fire to them.

The idea of smart homes, kitted out with smart appliances, has been around for years, with the super-rich and the slightly unhinged already making use of them. But 2011 will be the first time many of the innovations will be available for mainstream consumption.

A firm called Warmup is set to launch a smart thermostat, the 3iE, that allows users to micro-manage the temperature in every room of their home from one funky, iPhone-inspired touch-screen controller (“the ultimate addition to the modern home environment” reads the rather optimistic press release).

LG’s Hom Bot, a “smart” vacuum cleaner, uses ultrasonic and infra-red sensors to plot a course around your home. It can remember where furniture is and will “learn” quicker routes the next time it is unleashed. And, thankfully, it can tell the difference between living things (pets, children) and inanimate objects, hopefully preventing hamster-related accidents.

The Korean firm is also launching a smart washing machine that will recommend the most energy efficient-cycle for your clothes and work out whether it is cheaper in your area to wash the load during “off peak” hours. In a baffling display of organisation, the appliance will even churn out daily, weekly or monthly reports on its energy consumption, although quite who will spend their time sifting through them is unclear.

Other firms are releasing smart water-heaters, smart alarm systems and smart refrigerators. Soon everything will be smart. The machines have already taken over – they are just far more boring than we imagined.

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The Sony PlayStation Portable 2 was unveiled this week. Officially called the Next Generation Portable (NGP), the new device packs a real punch. It features a gigantic five inch screen, a touch sensitive rear, 3G connectivity, wi-fi and what Sony is calling the most advanced chip on the market. Sony, perhaps the biggest proponent of 3D technology, stuck with 2D for the NGP, which means the games will have to be something special to win over users from Nintendo’s 3DS. Gamers will have a long time to make their minds up – it won’t be released until Christmas.

Motorola has announced it will be bringing its Atrix handset to the UK. The Android smartphone looks slick (nothing to blow your mind in a post-iPhone 4 world, but certainly more impressive than Motorola’s clunky leviathan the Milestone). The Atrix, the firm says, is designed for speed, opening web pages up to twice as fast as rivals. But the really interesting part is the link-up with your desktop PC. Slotting into a nifty dock, you can run the Atrix’s applications through your PC screen or plug in a full keyboard via USB to type messages and emails.

In a bizarre case of life imitating art (if, indeed, you can call firing birds at pigs art) Character Options is set to launch an official Angry Birds catapult. The plastic toy is designed to shoot fluffy balls with the 7m-selling game’s trademark avian faces painted on. I was slightly disappointed to learn it isn’t big enough to launch the range of plush toys released by the firm. Still, prepare for a glut of YouTube videos posted by people with far too much time on their hands recreating in minute detail every level from the smartphone game.