The European Union has launched a research project to develop technologies for the digital home.

The research project - Amigo - is attempting to open the development of middleware to as many participants as possible.

"By taking an open source approach, we believe we can speed up the development of interoperable middleware to run home networks using devices from multiple vendors," said Harmke de Groot, a researcher at Koninklijke Philips Electronics, speaking earlier this week in Berlin at the ehome conference and exhibition, which ended Friday. "We aim to use as many of the existing standards and specifications as possible."

By giving out the middleware as open source, together with architectural rules and documentation, the group believes it can support interoperability of devices currently locked into either partly connected or totally unconnected domains, such as consumer electronics, computers, mobile communications, home automation and security, according to De Groot.

Smart networks

In addition to open source middleware, the Amigo project hopes to develop "open and intelligent services that go beyond what many manufacturers envision today," De Groot said. "We need to think outside the box."

In this context, De Groot talked about the role of "ambient intelligence." Ambient intelligence, according to a link published on De Groot's Amigo Web page, is characterized by four basic elements: ubiquity, awareness, intelligence and natural interaction.

Ubiquity refers to a situation in which people are surrounded by multiple interconnected embedded systems, which are invisible in their environment. Awareness means the ability of the system to locate and recognize objects and people and their intentions, while intelligence involves a digital surrounding being able to analyze the context, adapt itself to the people who live in it and learn from their behaviour. Natural interaction, finally, relates to advanced modalities such as natural speech and gesture recognition, as well as speech synthesis, which could enable a much more human-like communication in a digital environment than is possible today.

Fifteen companies are participating in the Amigo project, including France Télécom, Telefónica, the German subsidiary of Microsoft and the Institute for Natural Language Processing at the University of Stuttgart.