Orca promises the killer application for 500 homes

An 'intelligent home' trial which sees power companies, broadcasters, telcos and city council combine to offer 500 households a dozen services ranging from email to security monitoring has the attention of the world.

An "intelligent home" trial which sees power companies, broadcasters, telcos and city council combine to offer 500 households a dozen services ranging from email to security monitoring has the attention of the world.

Eight companies are offering a range of services in the four-month trial to households randomly selected in Auckland, New Plymouth and Christchurch.

The trial is the first demonstration of large-scale use of the technology anywhere in the world, says a spokesman behind the Orca project, and has drawn significant international interest from Europe and the US.

Partners are Southpower, Mercury Energy, Enerco (owned 70% by Southpower), Powerco, Westpac Trust, TVNZ, Clear Communications and the Christchurch City Council (the major shareholder in Southpower).

They’ll be offering banking, home security monitoring, convenience food and wine ordering, energy use and account information, access to news and information and electronic mail. All up, there more than a dozen services available.

Halfway through the trial, the householders will be allowed to choose which of the three electricity suppliers they want to use. This will be the first time residential customers will have this option in New Zealand. Till now, choice has been prohibitive because of the cost of special metering.

Orca spokesman Alex Smith says the trial grew out of a technology project begun by Southpower three years ago. This produced a device known as the Power Manager, enabling electricity users to monitor their usage.

Research indicated that more services should be bundled to make an online project more viable, he says. Southpower thus began talking to other potential partners.

Orca has been developed using proven technologies.

“However, these technologies have been combined in an innovative way, driven by customer needs,” Smith says.

The trial begins this month and ends in November. Householders will be given a keypad to access the services. Those who already have PCs will be given software.

The keypad attaches to a base unit and there is a two-line display on the menu-driven keypad. The technology accesses television’s vertical blanking interval (VBI), the same as used for teletext. Information can be displayed on a PC by clicking on elements of a virtual home pictured on the screen. The Back Office Support System (BOSS) manages customer contacts, equipment and transactions with the Orca system. It will be supported on an NT server during the trial.

Smith won’t reveal the cost of the project but confirms it is several million dollars. “In parallel (with the trial) we’ll look at how to go into full deployment. The plan is to roll it out nationwide.”

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