Culture

South Korea's house of the future

Even with the privacy fears, the home-networking technology South Korea is promoting is hard to resist, CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says.

SEOUL, South Korea--For many people, the digital home--where PC monitors are invisibly embedded in bathroom mirrors, and sensors and cameras are everywhere--represents a threat to human dignity and pride.

But to be honest, the concept is sort of cool, once you've seen a few demonstrations.

The South Korean government and several large companies here are actively promoting technology for connecting every household appliance to the Internet. Under the 8-3-9 initiative, the country is trying to take the lead it has established in broadband (there is a 71 percent penetration rate there, according to an average of various estimates) to serve as a lab--and eventual supplier--for the products for the home of the future.

In a ubiquitous computing demonstration set up by South Korea's Ministry of Information and Communication (MIC), large-screen TVs served up virtual versions of the morning newspaper. A system using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, meanwhile, tabulated grocery items in a cart and sent the bill to a cell phone account.

In the wired car, a liquid-crystal display panel/computer in the back seat could play music or video from a home hard drive, find parking spaces, pay bridge tolls, or conduct a video conference with people back at the office.

Samsung's own demo home has a bathroom health monitor that enables you to send information on vital signs such as blood pressure and oxygen levels to your doctor while you sit on the toilet. The home network also includes Internet-activated rice cookers, screens in the bedroom that let you see who is at the front door, and TV sets that can flash up the number of an incoming phone call.

"The government's goal is to have 10 million households with (complete) home networking by 2007," Yong Duk Yoon, a vice president at Samsung's Advanced Institute of Technology, said in an interview.

This sort of home-networking technology makes many in the United States cringe.
This sort of home-networking technology makes many in the United States cringe. Privacy advocates have suggested that RFID tags will conceivably enable companies to spy on individuals. Internet-powered home video cameras could turn from being security systems into family spying kits.

Worse, the wired home might promote a sort of technodystopia, where individuals spend their lives immersed in a bathysphere of crass entertainment and surreptitious surveillance.

The technology isn't cheap at the moment, either. Samsung's basic digital home package, which runs on the electrical power lines in the home, sells to a builder for about $2,000. More elaborate versions with Internet-enabled refrigerators, drapes, lights and ovens go for around $10,000--but that total doesn't include entertainment devices such as large-screen TVs.

South Korea is also something of a too-perfect test bed for the technology. Koreans generally sign the deed to their condominiums before they are actually built; thus, add-ons like power line networking are easier to swallow.

Still, the concept is likely to become inevitable worldwide, for the following reasons:

• Time: People simply don't have time to get their errands done any more. Going to the doctor represents a half day out of work. Similarly, medical practices don't want to retain the staff to take ordinary vital signs. Telemedicine allows physicians to obtain a more accurate picture of a patient's health without anyone having to travel.

A province in Western Canada is currently engaged with Samsung on a home health trial and another that allows Canadians to cut down on home heating, according to Yoon. Spain and Australia are conducting similar trials.

• Driving: Going to the store after you've come home can represent a major hassle for a two-income family with kids. Sure, Internet-enabled grocery ordering and delivery might inform a hacker that you like Vienna sausages, but you could also find out if the milk is bad before getting home.

Call me shallow, but it's tough to ignore the appeal of robotic vacuum cleaners and big-screen monitors that you can write on with a pen.
The difficulties of transportation is clearly one of the reasons Korea will likely be an early adopter of such systems. Outside the air-conditioned ambience of the home or office wait pollution, howling dust storms and traffic jams that can extend for miles. Cell phone penetration has become so high partly because of the difficulty of getting around.

• Economic development: In South Korea, you don't hear much about the privacy concerns about RFID. Instead, you hear complaints about why the country has fallen behind in exploiting it. The ultimate goal of the 8-3-9 initiative is to raise the per-capita gross national product from about $12,000 per year to $20,000 by 2010, according to the MIC. High technology represents one of the best opportunities for doing this.

"RFID is not a complicated technology. Korea is somewhat behind Japan, but we are very determined to develop the field," said Daeje Chin, South Korea's Minister of Information and Communication (and Samsung's former CEO). Chin also has a mandate to boost the number of engineering graduates and to promote technology and digital TVs. China and others will follow the same strategy, until the prices get too low to resist.

• Status: Call me shallow, but it's tough to ignore the appeal of wireless speakers, robotic vacuum cleaners and big-screen monitors that you can write on with a pen. The bathroom mirror with the voice-activated embedded screen and news headlines was fairly cool. (Perhaps one hidden reason privacy advocates don't like these technologies is that they fear others finding out that they shop at Old Navy.)

On the other hand, automation can be sort of unsettling. In Samsung's demo digital home, the company set up a bookshelf full of decorative, leather-bound volumes. It contained four volumes of "Descent of Man," by Charles Darwin.