The Telegraph
| Sunday, June 23, 2013 |


A robot at home

Robot nannies. Lights and air conditioners that spring to life at the touch of a smart-phone. Tech-savvy Indians are moving into futuristic homes, says Varuna Verma

The Patels have a new family member. No, not just the baby born some months ago — but a robot that enables Sneha Patel to take care of the child while she is at work.

When the Mumbai-based human resource manager went back to work after her maternity leave got over, she was worried about leaving her child alone with the nanny. So she bought a robot, a grey-black machine-man fitted with a seven-inch LCD screen, a two-way voice link, a microphone, camera and wheels, designed by the Ahmedabad-based Gridbots Technologies.

Patel logs on to the Gridbots website and feeds in a password. She can command the robot to move to any room. Then, with the help of the screen and the mike, she can talk to her child and watch the baby's reactions — all while at work. "I'm at two places at the same time," Patel says.

The GSR1 (Gridbot Service Robot) costs Rs 98,000 and is integrated to a home automation system that Gridbots designed and launched two years ago. "The product allows homes to take care of themselves," says firm founder Pulkit Gaur.

Homes are the new tech hubs today. Technology-savvy Indians are moving into futuristic homes, where everything from the lights, air conditioners and kitchenware to a sprinkler and the private theatre springs to life at the touch of a smartphone.

Smart homes are the new buzzword in the urban real estate market, agrees Avinash Gautam, vice-president, security and automation, Silvan Innovation Labs, a Bangalore-based technology firm. "Smart homes are all about using technology to handle security and home appliances in the house. This segment — currently worth $300 million and growing at 40 per cent a year — has boomed in the last couple of years, spurred by the mass use of smartphones, tablets and broadband Internet connections," Gautam says.

Even then, smart homes represent only about 3-4 per cent of the total residential space, adds Santhosh Kumar, CEO, operations, at real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle India. But with increasing awareness and higher incomes, he sees the market headed up.

Take Silvan Labs, which launched its home automation product two years ago and has now signed up with 10 real estate developers in Bangalore and Mumbai to install its system in their residential projects.

The automation system sets into action at the entrance. When the doorbell rings, video footage of the visitor is streamed to the owner's smart home. If a child returns home early from school, the door can be remotely unlocked via the phone. "In case of an unwanted entry, the home owner will receive a call and video footage of the intruder on his smart phone," Gautam says.

The appliances inside the house can be controlled from a phone or tablet. Users can also set scenarios — for instance, at 7 every evening, the AC and a few lights will switch on, the curtains will be drawn and the television will beam the evening news. "There are several scenario options — like regular evening, romantic dinner and Saturday night party," Gautam adds.

It costs Rs 150-300 per square foot to install the Silvan home automation system — half of what it cost two years ago. "The boom in the smartphone and tablet market has directly impacted the home automation sector," Gautam holds. He sees smart homes going the swimming pool way — it will become a standard specification in apartment complexes a few years on.

Developers are already going the extra mile. Bangalore-based Mantri Developers, for instance, has tied up with Apollo Hospitals to provide medical consultations, through video conferencing, for residents of its upcoming Mantri Espana smart home project in the city. "The homes are also equipped with wireless door locks, video door stations, customised settings for lights and gas detection sensors," marketing head Snehal Mantri says. The developers are currently constructing three smart home apartment and villa complexes.

A smart home takes all members' needs into consideration. The GSR1, for instance, comes with a facial recognition feature that recognises a family member. "If I walk into a room, the AC will run at the temperature I prefer. The lights will also come on as per my liking," Gaur explains.

Gridbots, which has sold 50 robots, done 20 big installations and over 100 small ones, is currently testing two more products. It plans to soon launch an upgraded robot fitted with a robotic arm which can pick up a glass of water and medicines — ideal for taking care of the elderly. And it is working on an intelligent refrigerator system that can place online orders for eggs and bread before stocks run out.

Sobha Habitech, another smart home project in Bangalore, focuses on video surveillance. Among its smart features is a boom barrier at the entrance of the housing complex, which opens automatically when it senses a resident's vehicle driving up. There is also a panic button for senior citizens, says Vivek Jaiswal, vice-president, marketing, Sobha Developers.

Mumbai-based Lodha Developers has made security the USP of a smart home complex it is constructing at New Cuffe Parade. "The complex has a five-step security plan, which includes electronic access, boom barriers and baggage scanners. The lifts open for visitors only if they have access cards," chief marketing officer R. Karthik says.

If not a whole home, consumers can also buy smart home fixtures. Kohler Kitchen & Bath of the US has just launched Moxie, a showerhead with wireless speakers, in India. Also on the shopping list is the C3 toilet seat and bidet, which comes with a touchscreen keypad for users to preset wash preferences. Launched last year, the C3 costs Rs 73,000.

For tech-savvy Indians, home is where the gadget is.