While covering the Embedded Technology 2011 show last week in Yokohama, I couldn’t help but notice one big shift in the Japanese electronics industry’s agenda since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami: the industry’s collective focus on the “smart home.”
Concepts like the smart house, city or society are no longer a pie-in-the-sky schemes dreamed up by Japanese academics applying for grants. Nor is this something concocted by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (MEITI) to promote Japanese industry.
Not that academia and MEITI have given up. Far from it.
It was clear at the show that technology suppliers are taking the “smart home” idea far more seriously than ever before, with a renewed interest and sense of urgency. They are pursuing embedded technologies that allow people to intelligently “control, conserve, store and distribute energy” within the home or community.
Unlike the U.S., where utility-led “smart grid” discussions dominate the conversation, Japan is reframing the debate around designing the “smart home,” observed Masaya Ishida, publisher of EE Times Japan, our sister publication based in Tokyo. While the concept includes the continuous flow of energy from utility companies, a “smart home” in this context could be better described as “energy-independent” or as a “sustainable-energy” home.
The idea is to embed the smart “control” functions in every device and every system, enabling consumers to achieve desired levels of energy consumption and conservation for every embedded system they use at home and at work.
Further, the notion of the “energy-independent home,” envisions a day when energy conserved can be stored in fuel cells in electric vehicles. Ishida reminded me that many Japanese living in big cities, for example, only drive on weekends, preferring public transportation for the daily commute. This leaves energy stored in the family car – which charges at low-peak hours -- to be intelligently distributed throughout the home to a host of devices during peak hours.
Lessons learned over the past summer
The rolling blackouts implemented in Japan this summer (due to the catastrophic nuclear power plant failures in Fukushima) taught Japanese companies, factories, retailers and consumers invaluable lessons in “perseverance” (limiting energy usage at peak time, banning neon signs on streets, turning off escalators in public spaces, removing a few fluorescent tubes from light fixtures in offices and stores, running factories on weekends) and a myriad of tricks used to save every milli-watt by manually manipulating power consumption.
While the Japanese are all feeling good about having met national ‘energy conservation’ goals this summer, they are girding for the upcoming winter. Energy demands are certain to exceed those experienced in summer.
This time around, though, the electronics industry’s new goal is to make energy saving “effortless” for everyone, rather than asking every consumer to “persevere.”
The industry sees that the answer may lie in embedded. They want to embed in devices every conceivable smart element – smart energy control, smart energy consumption to efficient energy storage and intelligent energy distribution technologies – at home, at work and in communities.
The Fukuoka Smart House Consortium built a “smart house” complete with solar panels on its roof top and a wind turbine. The mock-up on display here illustrates how it all ties into the energy control system (shown on the computer screen on the photo) built into the house.
The diagram below shows all the building blocks for the Fukuoka Smart House, which needs to be supported by key interface standards and technologies, including power line communication, open services gateway initiative, vehicle to home standard and others. (Note the electric vehicle in the diagram – to store energy.)
Click on image to enlarge.