Bill and Melinda Gates' Washington mansion is no ordinary millionaire's pad. The size and outward appearance are secondary; what sets it apart is technology. It has hi-tech sensors all over which monitor and regulate climate and lighting. The paintings on the walls are all on computer screens and can be changed at the push of buttons, whenever the couple wants to. There are hidden speakers everywhere which, with the help of a GPS, keep shifting the piped music to whichever rooms the couple is in. Every device and appliance seems to have a mind of its own, capable of remembering and performing remote controlled directions.
The houses of Indian technology wizards and high net worth individuals have not got that far yet, but they are on their way. In a not-too-distant future, tech experts aver, you will need to only punch a few buttons on your smartphone in advance to have your window blinds rising on their own at a fixed hour every morning, letting in the sunshine. Your favourite music - or bhajan, or the morning news bulletin, whichever you prefer - would start to waft through your bedroom as you wake up. It would follow you into the kitchen or the bathroom as you move there. Lights and fans would turn on by themselves as you enter different rooms, and turn off again when you leave. The front door would lock itself as you depart for work. When you return, your garage doors would open as your car approaches. Your building lift - if you live in an apartment - would recognise you and take you automatically to your floor. Your front door would open as you reach it. Inside, the air conditioner would be already working, the TV already on.
More delights would await you in the bathroom and the kitchen. Press some more smartphone buttons and the shower would start streaming water at your preferred temperature. "A smart bathroom's mirror would have a built-in TV, touch faucets, aroma therapy shower panels and a high-end Jacuzzi," says Neelesh Gupta, Director at Gurgaon-based sanitaryware supplier, De Ceramica*. In the kitchen, the coffee machine would have your morning or evening cuppa ready even as you enter it. Your appliances would possess sixth sense technology, making them capable of interpreting gestures. Ovens would turn on by themselves if you wanted them to, and suggest menu options as well. Refrigerators would chill faster if you so desired; chimneys would adjust their suction depending on what is being cooked. "Drawers would have touch-enabled sensors to open when you touch them or shut when you withdraw," says Vikas Juneja, Managing Director at home accessories maker, Benchmark Lifestyle Solutions. "Accessories from top European brands can make your kitchen as hi-tech as the latest luxury car models."
Seems far fetched? In the past few years, Indian developers have begun offering houses which incorporate some of these features. Mantri Developers' housing projects across Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Pune; Sobha Developers' Habitech project in Bangalore; the Lodha Group's recent buildings in Mumbai and Thane; and IREO's Skyon Apartments in Gurgaon all have smart features in varying degrees. Mantri Developers' apartments, for instance, enable security and visitor management, as well as lighting control, at the touch of buttons, while activated alarms alert residents to fire, gas leakage or unwarranted intrusions.Also, the average brick-and-mortar home can be turned a smart one with help from specialist companies, though it is always better to integrate smart features into the wiring at the construction stage itself. "We work with both new homes and old ones which seek smart retrofitting," says Thanik B., Director-Business Development & Strategy, Eco-Buildings, at electrical manufacturing giant, Schneider Electric India. "The basic requirement is to enable all the gadgets and devices installed in a home to communicate on a common platform. We have solutions for doing so." Once linked, a single app can provide a panoramic view of every room and buttons on a single device can operate every gadget.
Naturally, the smart transformation does not come cheap. A number of the residents at DLF's upscale apartment complexes, Aralias and Magnolias, around the DLF Golf Course, Gurgaon, for instance, have upgraded thus - and it cost them a few crore. (The flats themselves, around 5,000 sq. ft. in area, cost about Rs 15 crore.) "Automating a five bedroom home, along with the living room would cost around Rs 15 lakh, excluding the cost of the equipment," says Sunit Mathur, Managing Director, Cinebels, which installs home entertainment equipment. "This would include automatic light dimming devices, air conditioners in all rooms with touch panels, home theatre systems in every room including a big one in the living room. The total cost depends upon the brand used, from Rs 30 lakh for everyday brands to a few crore for the high-end ones." Upgrading bathrooms and kitchen would raise the cost further. "The minimum cost of turning a single bathroom into a smart one would be close to Rs 15 lakh," says De Ceramica's Gupta. Similarly, experts estimated that smartening up a kitchen would cost at least Rs 25 lakh.
There is, however, some saving in the long run, as smart homes are also energy efficient, reducing consumption by 30 to 60 per cent. "A combination of dimmers, sensors, and window shades maximise energy efficiency with respect to lighting," says Raimondo Salandra, President, Low Voltage Products, ABB India. "The house design, the gadgets and processes used help as well." Refrigerators, for instance, can be programmed to reduce cooling when the house owner is away and thereby save energy. "A smart home is one which improves quality of life without stressing resources," Salandra adds.
Another key aspect is access to all multimedia entertainment from a central network storage device, with all content permanently stored there. "Often people lose the existing content on their devices as they record new songs, videos or movies," says Ashish Tijare, Vice President, Sales, CasaDigi, which provides intelligent home solutions. "We store your content at a single place in network storage from where it is available across all TVs in your home. We create individual profiles for all our members according to their personal preferences." Experts maintain that given the continuing advances in digital technology, the possibilities are endless.
*An earlier version of this story spelt De Ceramica incorrectly.