The house and supermarket of the future

E&T travels to Brussels to experience the house and the supermarket of the future.

The mirrors in the bathroom display your blood pressure, temperature and weight from sensors in your toothbrush and in the floor. The smart mirror will also remind you when to take medication and will display today's weather. Touch screens are ubiquitous: from a very clever smart board on the kitchen wall to a discrete 2,000-LED display embedded into the kitchen worktop that controls the environment. One notable absence is that of robots of any kind, but perhaps that is by design.

The Living Tomorrow (LT) complex in Brussels is a highly interconnected 'brave new world' where smart phones, mirrors, carpets, multimedia systems, lighting and heating, banking, and bill-paying systems all communicate with each other wirelessly and seamlessly.

The concept of a show house that presents a vision of how we will live in the future has been around for many years. A large part of the appeal of the 1851 Great Exhibition was the excitement caused by newfangled inventions like the daguerreotype and the electric telegraph. LT generates that kind of buzz too. The brainchild of two Belgian architects, Frank Belien and Peter Bongers, the show is in its third incarnation - LT3, and is constantly evolving and being updated. Some 80 per cent of the applications on display in the house are at or near market, while the remaining 20 per cent are visions of the future, up to a decade away from making an appearance as consumer products.

"We want to help make people aware of what's out there and generate feedback," says Bongers. "After all, to build the products hitting the market tomorrow, companies need to know what people want today."

Working in partnership with companies such as Microsoft, DuPont, Bticino and other, lesser known, innovators like Intensys - supplier of the unique prototype Alkaline fuel cell - the architects have created a domestic house complete with separate flat as the central theme, but there are additional sections offering us glimpses into the bank, workplace, and supermarket of tomorrow. Technology develops at such pace that the five-year cycle of the LT house is perhaps too long. The danger is that on launch day of 'Living Tomorrow' it effectively becomes 'Living Today'. What keeps it all fresh is the constant reworking and updating of the key areas.

Clean technology

Given the desire to lower our carbon footprints, maximum use is made of sustainable energy sources, clean technology products that conserve energy and don't create much carbon waste. A geothermal heat pump extracts heat via five geo-probes 100m below the surface, tapping into the relatively constant temperatures and transferring this energy via a heat exchanger into the heating system of the house. This flow is reversed in summer and excess heat is dumped into the ground to cool the house. A unique prototype micro CHP alkaline fuel cell, which generates 6kW of power and 4kW of heat for hot water and heating, has been installed by Belgian company Intensys. Until the longer-term thorny question of hydrogen storage is addressed, the hydrogen supply to the fuel cell is held in pressurised cylinders.

Jef Spaepen, CEO of the company says: "The next phase is mass production to bring unit costs right down. Compared with an automotive production line, ours will be a walk in the park." Being involved with LT3 has raised the company profile and been excellent for networking. Unfortunately, the business recently went into receivership as a result of the credit crunch, but Spaeben already has four potential investors interested in his technology and know-how.

Shutters on the outside of the building are covered in photovoltaic cells which can orientate themselves optimally to the angle of the sun, and of course the roof itself has an installation of 70m2 of photovoltaic arrays. Combine these energy sources with excellent insulation, and the house requires very little additional energy in the form of gas or electricity.

Energy conservation continues with ventilation. This is automatically controlled using CO2 sensors which calculate the exact volume of fresh air input required to the building. Around 95 per cent of the energy from warm escaping air is used to heat incoming fresh one. The building itself is extremely energy-efficient and if set up to do so, would be a net exporter to the grid.

As much as possible, rainwater is used to flush toilets and for washing, and where mains water must be used, tap restrictors are in place. In the kitchen area, one piece of software on a touch-screen smart board displays the household energy balance very visually.

The Ecotrack system allows the householder to monitor everything: from water consumption to the progress of charge in hybrid cars - in a clear graphic display. It will alert to taps left on and compare energy uses to those of a typical family. On leaving the house, a one-touch control puts the contents into sleep mode.

Store of the future

To explore the philosophy behind LT and the experiences of LT partners, E&T spoke to Wim Van Winghe, marketing director of Microsoft Benelux, who has been personally involved with LT for over five years.

"In the home environment, it's interesting to note the differences between LT2 and LT3. LT2 was packed full of technology, almost for its own sake. I think that people found it rather overwhelming. If you wanted to move the table, there was a button for that. LT3 is much more pared down, more subtle. It's more about an intuitive user interface than the technology itself.

"Being a technology company, one of our major sources of competition is the 'good enough' factor where people are happy with what they have, because it does the job. LT is one place where we can slowly shift people's expectations of their interaction with technology and broaden their vision," he says.

The Store of the Future has just been rebuilt to incorporate as many new developments in the shopping experience as possible. The lead partner is Delhaize, Belgium's chic forward-looking supermarket. The main theme is innovation at the customer interface. A couple of weeks away from the official opening, Erwin Tanghe, director of retail technology is bursting with enthusiasm.

"We want to design a toolkit that helps our customers better organise their daily lives," he says. "It's all about speed, simplicity and integration, with the smart phone at the core. Our customer's future retail experience will be rooted in the home. That's where shopping lists start after all."

Equipped with his list, made up on the smart phone or on the TV, PC or the kitchen smart board, the shopper enters the store, identifies himself or herself via a virtual loyalty card on a smart phone. The list is then uploaded and groceries scanned with the same phone, which selectively downloads information about the wines purchased, alongside a recipe built around the apples just scanned. The missing ingredients of the recipe can even then be added to the shopping list.

Provenance and a traceable trail from farm to shelf is accessible via 2D barcodes that can be scanned by the phone, but RFID tags are still too expensive for general use. Erwin sees them being used first with highly perishable goods that spoil easily to indicate unsafe 'in transit' storage temperatures for example. At checkout, payment is speeded by scanning the phone.

"Faster is always easier for the shopper, but in the near future we see retailers becoming more involved in helping the shopper achieve a healthier way of life by providing much more information," adds Tanghe.

Feedback

Continuous feedback is received from some 300,000 visitors a year about their reaction to the technology. From engineers and technologists, to schoolchildren, students and senior citizens, everyone has an opinion and partnership companies value the response. Microsoft's Wim van Winghe says: "Apart from the exposure, two key elements benefit us in being part of the LT projects. The LT team has its own R&D section that takes the components of our platform and builds it into something that makes sense in the context of people's daily lives. The smartboard in the kitchen and how it links to the supermarket and bank of the future is a good example of this. Secondly, it is the synergistic relationships that build between us and other participants. This is a people thing: working with Delhaize, people with the same mindset, we can figure out how Microsoft technology can drive E-commerce."

With partner companies already beginning to look forward to the main planning phase for LT4 due to start late in 2010, both Microsoft and Delhaize, plus a multitude of other partners, are all sure that LT has a future.

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