The dream of the digital home is now becoming reality, thanks to the growing popularity of the Internet and relatively easy-to-install and affordable home communication and entertainment systems, experts say.

Last week's eHome conference and exhibition in Berlin saw several experts discuss their pooled knowledge.

"Manufacturers in several industries, including consumer electronics, IT, communications and home automation, have been working on home networking technologies for years, but often it's been each industry working on its own and with marginal success," said Ralf Schaefer, project manager for IP (Internet Protocol) video systems in the research and development division of Thomson .

"Now we're seeing a generation of computer users building their own home communication and entertainment networks with technology off the shelf and connecting these to the outside world via the Internet. There's more interest in the digital home today than ever before because many home users can now buy and install the technology themselves, and see a benefit."

Market researcher IDC expects the worldwide base of households with a network to grow from 37 million in 2003 to nearly 111 million in 2008.

Standards eclipsed by IP

Schaefer believes way too much time and energy were exhausted in endless standardization debates over bus systems. "Then the focus shifted to IP and IP-embedded devices," he said. "And since then, we've been seeing real progress on the digital home front."

Viktor Grinewitschus, director of embedded Internet systems at the Fraunhofer Institute of Microelectronic Circuits and Systems, shares a similar view. "We are experiencing a strong shift from house automation to multimedia, which is now the driving force behind the home digital market," he said.

"A lot of people are genuinely interested in connecting their PCs, TVs, digital cameras and music devices. And once they get a handle on that, they could get interested in connecting other devices, like heating systems, security cameras and lighting."

Despite progress in home networking, interoperability still remains a huge challenge, especially when devices from different domains, such as consumer electronics, IT and home security or utility automation, are to be connected, according to Grinewitschus.

Meta-language emerges

"What we really need is to find a way to describe tasks, such as adjusting the brightness of a light bulb," he said. "This task needs to be understood by other devices connecting to it within the system."

Grinewitschus is conducting research into the use of XML (Extensible Markup Language) as a means to describe functions of devices within a Web-based home infrastructure.

The value proposition could increase even further with the use of sensors, according to Park Hyun, vice president and research fellow at the home network division of LG Electronics: "We envision a ubiquitous services-oriented home environment where sensors will play a big role," he said. "They will be embedded in numerous devices, providing intelligence essentially everywhere in and around the home."

But a home full of services, Hyun admitted, may not be for everyone. Some people, he said, may become concerned about the technology infringing on their privacy.

"A sensor monitoring your child at a playground is one thing but do you want to be monitored everywhere within your own home?" Hyun asked. "The use of sensors isn't just a technology issue; it's a social issue that manufacturers and consumers need to discuss together."