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Big Brother is watching you

Big Brother is watching you

Crossing the campus to Philips' HomeLab, sited on the hallowed grounds of the Dutch inventors' research campus, I gave an anticipatory shudder. I'd heard plenty about this mysterious living laboratory, and imagined it to be the sort of place where once-willing inmates spend weeks on end performing mundane tasks by rote while shadowy figures skulk behind one-way mirrors.

Needless to say, it's not at all like that. HomeLab is a squat brick building with huge lettering proudly proclaiming its entrance. And it was made clear to the assembled journalists that Philips' top brass have no truck with inventors stuck away in labs working on clever items that no one needs. So no USB ashtrays for motorcyclists or talking rubber ducks telling you how many dead skin cells you've forgotten to slough off in the bath, then.

Instead, HomeLab confirmed the practical applications of technologies such as Ambilight -- an award-winning lighting surround system for your flat-screen TV that enhances the atmosphere of your living room as well as reducing the strain of staring at an electric light-tube.

Although the idea wasn't born in HomeLab, it was tested here and found to have genuine benefits. The point of HomeLab is to create an environment in which people can live in harmony with technology without having to think about how to use it. Mood-sensitive fabrics with LEDs woven into them may soon be used for curtains and wall coverings. Fully functioning products using this phototonic fabric included glowing cushions that could comfort a child afraid of the dark or be used to receive text and answerphone messages, while rucksacks and other wearable items would also be able to store small amounts of data and be customizable using embedded colored lights.

Philips set up HomeLab three years ago with the intention of sneaking a peek at how people use technology and interact with it on a day-to-day basis -- as opposed to how technicians and inventors assume we do, and what it suits manufacturers to expect of consumers. An extension of the Ambilight idea combines Philips' pedigree in lighting, consumer electronics and the health-care market.

Technicians demonstrated a bathroom in which the lighting gradually turned on and gained intensity, rather than jolting visitors awake.

Approach its interactive mirror and scales embedded in the floor and optical sensors will establish which family member you are and provide appropriate information and advice. For instance, diabetics may be prompted to perform an insulin check; those with high blood pressure may be told to take their daily dose of tablets, while teenage fitness freaks are given encouragement about improving fitness levels, and so on.

A related Philips innovation, the MiraTV, has already found favor in hotels. It enables guests to check traffic and weather conditions as well as adjusting their attire in a mirrored TV panel. Feel like asserting your authority over the wired-up homes? Well, rather than randomly stabbing buttons on a remote control, you can speak to -- and get a reply from -- a pseudo-animated object such as a flexible light or a somewhat freakish-looking cat. So perhaps there is something unsettling about HomeLab after all.

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