Archive for November, 2009

Conventional fire detection and alarm products in premises housing multiple occupants – HMO’s

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Premises which combine multiple occupants with sleeping risk are widely acknowledged as requiring particular attention when designing and specifying a fire detection system. The legal definition of a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) is a complex one, but HMOs include:

–  A building or part of a building occupied by more than one household which shares certain amenities such as a bathroom or kitchen
–  A converted building occupied by more than one household which is partly converted into self-contained flats
–  A building which is made up entirely of self-contained flats that do not meet the 1991 Building Regulation, and where more than one third of the flats are occupied under short-term tenancies.

Such buildings might include residential accommodation for essential workers like nurses, sheltered housing complexes, lodging houses, student accommodation, holiday self-catering apartments, hotels and bed & breakfast premises.

Calls to action
A grim reminder of the consequences of fire has recently been delivered during the inquest into the three deaths in the 2007 fire at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay. The coroner warned of the risk of further deaths unless there is Government support for hotels and guest houses to invest in fire safety or to ensure compliance with the law.

The first review of the effectiveness in England of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 also widely acknowledged this issue. Broadly speaking, it concludes that fire and rescue services have welcomed the legislation while businesses understand and support the risk assessment principle – where they are aware of the Fire Safety Order’s (FSO) provisions.

This caveat is a crucial one. Only around 60 per cent of businesses are aware of the FSO, and that awareness is particularly low among businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Among this category are many small hotels, guest houses or bed & breakfast premises.

The fire industry and Government have acknowledged that smaller hospitality businesses need to be specifically targeted to get the fire safety message across. The Government, in association with the Chief Fire Officers Association, has produced a booklet called Do You Have Paying Guests? It offers advice to these businesses about the risk assessment procedure and provides a guide to their responsibilities under the FSO.

The hospitality sector itself has raised concerns that many smaller guest houses could go out of business because they cannot afford to upgrade their fire protection. It is therefore clear that, while the political will and public pressure exists to improve fire protection in guest house-type HMOs, there is a need for the fire industry to demonstrate that it can provide a reliable and economical solution.

Understanding HMOs

Unlike larger, more complex buildings, smaller hotels and hospitality premises are relatively simple to navigate and to exit. For example, there may be only one landing, a main staircase and an alternative emergency exit. Fire detection and alarm products for this type of premises, therefore, do not need high levels of sophistication, but they do need to be fit for purpose. It is also advantageous if they offer certain other benefits, such as quick installation and cost competitiveness.

Despite the fact that many HMOs are physically quite simple in layout, the nature of their business means that regulation can be complex. Licensing of HMOs of three storeys or more by the relevant local authority became mandatory as early as April 2006. The idea was to make the general standards of HMOs consistent across the country.

Specific to the fire detection requirements is BS5839, the British Standard for fire detection and fire alarm systems for buildings. The applicable part of the code will depend on the size of the building and the different areas within it. While BS5839 Part 6 is the main code of practice for the installation of fire detection systems within the individual accommodation units of an HMO, Part 1 may also be applicable, particularly in communal areas and larger premises.

BS5839 also divides fire alarm systems into a number of different categories for life protection. They are designated and defined slightly differently within Part 6 (LD systems) and Part 1 (L) systems. At the very least, BS5839 Part 6 recommends that all dwellings be protected to LD3, which means spaces forming part of the escape route within the dwelling, such as the hall, are covered. In newer dwellings or where the risk is high, due to the occupants being elderly or disabled for example, a higher category of LD2 or LD1 may be required. These categories demand more comprehensive cover of communal, living and sleeping areas.

False Alarms
False alarms are another major consideration when developing fire detection products for HMOs. Persistent false alarms can lead to costs for the building owner for inappropriate call-out of emergency services and serious inconvenience for occupants. In extreme cases, it could even lead to occupants ignoring a genuine fire alarm, with potentially fatal consequences.
The most common causes of unwanted alarms are usually a result of tenants’ activities, such as:

–  burnt toast or cooking fumes
–  steam from bathrooms and kitchens
–  aerosols, e.g. hairspray
–  candles
–   tobacco smoke
–   build-up of dust

Other sources of unwanted alarms cannot be attributed to tenant activities and include insects, high humidity, water ingress and other sources of smoke external to the property. Any fire system therefore needs to be able to minimise false alarm incidents while still retaining its ability to raise a genuine alarm.

Another consideration with HMOs is the sequence of events that follow an alarm being raised. In individual dwellings, it may be acceptable for an alarm to be raised immediately so that the family can evacuate straight away, but in an HMO this could cause chaos. It is therefore important to allow the occupants of individual dwellings in an HMO the means of silencing an alarm signal if the source can be dealt with locally (e.g. burning toast) before the entire building is alerted and evacuated.

Fire safety duties of social landlords

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

In the light of this summer’s tragedy at Lakanal House in London, the fire safety duties of social housing landlords have come under the spotlight. Susan Horridge and Gary Ekpenyoung examine the main legal requirements.

Since the tragic events on the 3 July 2009, in which six people died in a fire at Lakanal House, a block of flats in London, there has been increased focus on social landlords’ duties regarding fire safety.

It is thought that the fire was caused by a faulty television, believed to be at least ten years old, which had been left plugged in on the 9th floor. The fire subsequently spread to the 11th floor, killing three adults and three children. Questions were raised and investigations are ongoing as to how the fire was able to spread so quickly.

Following the fire, the head of housing delivery and homelessness at Communities and Local Government, Terrie Alafat, wrote to all local authorities warning them of the safety issues which would create a hazard in similar blocks. She noted that the hazard at Lakanal House related to the positioning of a timber staircase inside each two-level flat, which cut across the top of a communal corridor and as a result, created a potential breach of the fire resisting construction of the ceiling. This type of hazard could allow a fire in one flat to burn through the timber stair and spread into the ceiling void of the corridor. However, such a hazard may not be readily apparent from visual inspections. She also added that the need to take action was a “matter for [the Local Authority’s] judgment”. The Tenant Services Authority has sent a similar letter to all registered social landlords in England.

The main duties upon social landlords in relation to fire safety are covered by the Housing Act 2004 and the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. In addition, where a social landlord provides electrical equipment or fixtures and furnishings to its tenants, they should also consider the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, the Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 and the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1998.

Housing Act 2004
The Housing Act 2004 brought in the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS) which considers 29 categories of potential hazards, one of which is fire. Under the HHSRS, any residential premises should provide a safe and healthy environment for any potential occupier or visitor. A dwelling should therefore be designed, constructed and maintained with non-hazardous materials and should be free from unnecessary and avoidable hazards.

The HHSRS provides a means of assessing dwellings which reflects the risk from any hazard and allows a decision to be made, in those particular circumstances, as to whether that risk is acceptable. For the purposes of the HHSRS, the assessment is solely about the risks to health and safety. Any issues regarding feasibility, cost or the extent of any remedial action are irrelevant to this assessment.

The HHSRS Operating Guidance sets out how to make an assessment of the fire hazard presented by a particular dwelling and covers potential for harm from fire, causes, preventative measures and relevant matters affecting the likelihood and harm outcome.

Hazard bands have been devised which group ranges of scores, ranging from bands A to J, with band A being the most dangerous and J the safest. The band into which a dwelling falls in respect of the fire hazard can then be used by a landlord to decide whether action should be taken to reduce the hazard, and also to prioritise actions across a landlord’s property portfolio. The enforcing authority also considers this when making a decision as to whether any enforcement action should be taken in respect of the property.

Fire Safety Order 2005
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 introduced duties in relation to fire safety in the common areas of houses in multiple occupation, flats, maisonettes and sheltered accommodation, in which personal care is not provided. The duty is placed on the ‘responsible person’, i.e. the landlord or in certain cases, the managing agent, who is required to carry out a fire risk assessment and take specific action to minimise the risk of fire in the common parts. The responsible person should take general fire precautions to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the safety of the people on the premises and in the immediate vicinity. Once the general fire precautions that are necessary have been identified and implemented, the responsible person must put in place a suitable system of maintenance and ensure that any procedures that have been adopted are implemented by competent persons.

Whilst the Order does not apply to individual flats, in practice the responsible person may need to take into account the entire premises, including to some extent, the individual units of accommodation themselves.

General fire precautions include: measures to reduce the risk of fire occurring; measures to reduce the spread of any fire through the premises; means of escape and their safe use at all times; firefighting; means of fire detection and warning; action to be taken in the event of fire; and mitigating the effects of fire.

Enforcement action which may be taken includes the service of either an alterations notice, enforcement notice or a prohibition notice. Failure to comply with any duty imposed by the Order, or the requirements of any enforcement action, is a criminal offence and carries a fine and possible imprisonment on conviction.

Under the Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998, landlords must ensure that the gas fittings and flues are maintained in a safe condition. Gas appliances should be serviced in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. If the instructions are not available, it is recommended that these are serviced annually. Landlords must also ensure that a gas safety check is carried out annually on each appliance/flue.

The Electrical Equipment (Safety) Regulations 1994 require that all electrical equipment supplied by a landlord is safe. There is no mandatory requirement for the equipment to undergo any safety testing, but the regulations require that any equipment supplied after 9 January 1995 shall be marked with the appropriate CE symbol. Suitable information or instruction booklets should also be provided.

If the landlord supplies furniture and furnishings in a property, they must meet the levels of fire resistance set out within the Furniture and Furnishings (Fire) (Safety) Regulations 1998. It is worth noting, however, that these regulations do not apply to carpets, curtains or duvets.

Social landlords are responsible for communal areas and as such, have to ensure that inspections and risk assessments comply with the HHSRS and Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, in addition to considering each of the regulations laid out in this article.

Whilst the duty only applies to the common parts, the entire premises, including the individual units, should also be considered. The risk assessments must be kept up to date and works carried out accordingly. In light of the fire at Lakanal House, social landlords may also need to look more closely at the construction of their properties, particularly in older dwellings, and consider any potential fire risks that may need to be addressed.

It is too early to say whether the local authority responsible for Lakanal House had complied with their duties. No doubt a thorough investigation will be undertaken and if they have breached their duties, liability and potential claims may follow.

Record £400,000 fine for retailer’s fire safety breaches

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

High street retailer New Look has been fined £400,000 and ordered to pay £136,052 in costs after pleading guilty to two breaches of fire safety legislation, following a serious fire at its Oxford Street store in London.

Thirty five fire engines and around 150 firefighters attended the fire on 26 April 2007, when around 450 people form the store and surrounding premises were evacuated. The first call to the fire service did not come until an office worker in an adjacent building took action, and the delay meant that the fire had already broken through the second floor windows when firefighters arrived. Despite the building’s fire alarm sounding, the alarm was reset on at least one occasion, said London Fire Brigade.

Crews remained on the scene for the next three days and a section of Oxford Street was closed to traffic and the public for two days. The cause of the fire was never established and the store was subsequently demolished.

One charge to which New Look pleaded guilty was for an inadequate fire risk assessment which was found to have a number of flaws, including no record of the appropriate procedures to be taken during a fire alarm. Another breach was insufficient staff training, which led to a delayed evacuation of the premises. This lack of training, said LFB, also led to staff evacuating around 150 people through the main entrance which was directly underneath the fire on the second floor.

Other alleged breaches taken into account included the absence of an interface between the swipe card system and the fire alarm panel which would have deactivated the doors. In addition, green emergency door release units were fitted on the wrong side of the basement doors.

Chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, Councillor Brian Coleman, said: “Good business management includes taking responsibility for fire safety, knowing the law and acting on it. This conviction shows that large companies are not exempt from prosecution and that London Fire Brigade will take action when businesses do not take their fire safety responsibilities seriously. Failure to comply with the law can, as this case has shown, result in a substantial fine.”

Sentencing of New Look took place at Southwark Crown Court on 25 November 2009.

TiVo heading to the UK

Friday, November 27th, 2009

TiVo, the US equivalent of Sky Plus is coming to the UK following a deal with Virgin Media announced on Tuesday.

The news, broken during the American company’s earnings results will see a “long-term, strategic partnership with Virgin Media”, says Tom Rogers, president and CEO of TiVo.

According to the two companies the deal will involve TiVo developing a converged television and interactive interface to power Virgin Media’s next generation, high definition set top boxes.

“TiVo will offer Virgin Media’s nearly four million UK customers TiVo’s advanced television and user interface on both its traditional and DVR set-top boxes”, confirmed Rogers.

Virgin Media currently anticipates its first TiVo co-branded product in 2010.

Philips announces 9704 range of “LED Pro” televisions

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Need another televisual tech phrase to add to the mix?

Sure you do, and today’s word comes from Philips with its new 9704 TV range that offers “LED Pro” technology.

Clearly better than just TVs marketed as LED sets, the “Pro” 9704 range offers “sensational black levels, brilliant whites and an incredible contrast level of 5,000,000:1 – while consuming up to 50% less power than conventional.

The LED Pro bits come in with the 224 LED segments, each of which can be independently dimmed or brightened – or even turned off completely – greatly improving contrast.

A few more proprietary phrases to throw at you now, and there’s also “Perfect Pixel HD engine”, “200Hz Clear technology”, “Perfect Natural Motion system”, “Perfect Colour” and “Colour Booster technology”, all of which are said to add up to a fab viewing experience.

The TV also offers “Ambilight Spectra 3”, another Philips tech, that projects lights from both sides and the top edge of the TV on to the rear wall for what’s claimed to be a more immersive viewing experience.

Other features include a 1ms response time, 2x15W output into four speakers and DNLA-certified Wi-Fi for Philips’ “NetTV” that means you can access the internet through telly and five HDMI 1.3a EasyLink sockets.

All of the above will cost you £1799 for the 40-inch 40PFL9704 and £2499 for the 46-inch 46PFL9704, both due on sale in December.

Federal Program Aims to Provide Energy Efficiency Retrofits to 5.9 Million Homes by 2012

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Proposed HOME STAR program under consideration by the Obama Administration to offer $23 billion in incentives for home performance projects, create 500,000 jobs

The Building Performance Institute, Inc. (BPI), a nationally recognized standards development and contractor credentialing organization for residential energy efficiency retrofit work, applauds a proposed nationwide residential energy efficiency retrofit program called HOME STAR that was unveiled last week in a New York Times article and accompanying blog post by David Leonhardt.

Also dubbed ‘Cash for Caulkers,’ HOME STAR is designed to encourage homeowners to weatherize their homes in order to create more than 500,000 new jobs. Venture capitalist John Doerr presented the program at a meeting of President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) on Nov. 2, 2009. The plan is now under keen consideration by the White House, according to statements made by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, to the New York Times.

“The nationwide unemployment rate is at 10 percent, but the construction industry is one of the hardest hit at 17 percent. The need to install energy efficiency improvement tactics on 5.9 million homes will bring people back to work,” says David Hepinstall, BPI’s Chairman of the Board. “Struggling contracting companies can transition their business model or a portion of their business completely into weatherization services, including whole-home energy audits and the development of work scopes for energy retrofit improvements, or with appropriate training and certification, begin to incorporate some weatherization improvement measures into their existing areas of expertise.”

The proposed program would provide $23 billion in funding: $18 billion for homeowner incentives, $2 billion for quality assurance audits on efficiency projects and $3 billion for retailer incentives and awareness-building activities.

The HOME STAR program also represents a massive opportunity for existing home performance professionals. The increased demand for energy efficiency retrofits that HOME STAR is expected to generate across the country will help existing home performance contractors build their businesses and accelerate their return on investment from their training and certification.

“They’ll be leading this initiative because they already have the skills, knowledge and experience they need to do the work and do it right,” says Hepinstall.

The proposed HOME STAR program also supports the Obama Administration’s environmental goals, complementing the Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance (REEP) program and legislation in the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Homes contribute 21% of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Energy efficiency retrofits can reduce a home’s energy consumption by as much as 40%, saving considerable greenhouse gas emissions. These deep energy savings will also help to protect American families from volatile energy prices and supply issues.

“BPI is very pleased with the recommendations in the HOME STAR proposal, in particular the call for formal training, professional credentials and a robust quality assurance program to protect both tax dollar and homeowner investments in the improvements,” says BPI CEO Larry Zarker. “We support this initiative 100 percent and offer our assistance in helping to bring the program to fruition as quickly as possible.

Energy harvesting

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Energy harvesting is not a new idea. We have had the motion-powered wristwatch for many years. But as electronic circuits move from consuming milliwatts to consuming microwatts an interesting thing happens. It becomes possible to contemplate drawing power for those circuits, not from the electricity grid or from a battery but from a variety of ambient phenomena. And this is expected to have far-reaching impact. One of the early applications is to have vibration-powered, wireless sensors in place on machinery, in vehicles. The battery-less aspect of such sensors removes the need for maintenance. EnOcean GmbH (oberhaching, Germany) has pioneered the use of wireless, batteryless switches for use in building automation and is now helping to drive the EnOcean Alliance to form standards.

Nokia is looking at energy harvesting in the context of the mobile phone but has stressed it has no prototype as yet. But in 2010 all makers of mobile equipment have to be looking at energy harvesting to, at least, augment the battery life of their equipment.

Birmingham Council signs Green Digital Charter

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

Birmingham City Council is planning to sign the Green Digital Charter, which aims to promote the use of green technologies in European cities.

The charter aims to bring European cities together in environmental initiatives. Among the policies Birmingham has agreed to undertake as part of the charter is an effort to make IT more energy efficient by encouraging the wider use of low-emission computer equipment.

The council plans to use renewable energy sources to power IT and to make use of energy emissions from equipment. One such example would be to heat buildings.

It will also use low-carbon digital infrastructure to transform services and information provision to improve service delivery. It plans to change the ways it runs to support distance working and to institute virtual meetings to eliminate travel.

Smart metering in the UK and you

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

New licence conditions for the supply of electricity and gas will be introduced on April 6 2009. These new conditions are an essential building block in the Government’s carbon reduction programme for the UK. Under these changes, all Profile Class 5-8 electricity meters, and all metered gas consuming over 732,000 kWh a year, must be replaced by smart meters.

The new metering standards for all Profile Class 5-8 meters will be CoP10 for whole current and CoP5 for CT meters. Customers have until 2014 to change their meters, but any smart meter installed as from the New Year must comply with this new metering code of practice.

Does this affect you?
To find out if your meters need to be changed, take a look at your electricity bill. This will contain an ‘S’ number that tells you which electricity Profile Class you are in.

According to BERR/DECC, the new meters must ‘store measured electricity consumption data for multiple time periods; and at least half hourly’ and they must ‘provide remote access to such data by the licensee’. BERR/DECC also state that ‘timely’ access to the data from the meter must be given to the customer. Government guidance is that ‘timely’ should be day + 1.

But, just because suppliers will now have to give you access to your meter data, it doesn’t mean they should let you have it for free.

Access to data
The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) is advising the public sector not to sign up to a supplier contract where metering is conditional on the agreement. They believe this ‘limits competition and the ability to negotiate energy contracts in the future’.

Continuity of data is fundamental to achieving carbon savings. So, the best route is to go appoint an independent provider of metering and data services. This will allow you to change supplier without being bound by any metering and data service, and without losing any of your meter data during the supplier change over.

The Government believes proprietary metering systems are not good for market choice. Therefore, BERR/DECC are calling for open systems, so that any data collector can collect from any metering system – just like in the half hourly market. The benefit of having open systems is that it will greatly improve consumer choice.

Switch sooner rather than later
Mandatory smart metering by 2014 will affect around 170,000 electricity meters and 40,000 gas meters in the UK. If this includes your organisation, then it’s in your interest to switch to smart metering sooner rather than later, because the half hourly meter data you will have access to will enable you to see exactly where and when energy waste is occurring. It’s only when you have this detailed information that you can start to introduce effective measures to eliminate waste and reduce carbon emissions.

Will you be caught in the Carbon Reduction Commitment?
Currently, there are 110,000 meters in the half hourly market. The requirement for mandatory smart metering in electricity Profile Classes 5-8 and annual gas usage of 732,000 kWh or over means a tripling in the number of half hourly meters by 2014. Any organisation which has introduced half hourly metering and which uses more than 6,000 megawatt hours a year (or around £1/2m at today’s prices) will now be caught in the net of the Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC). So, if you thought your organisation was going to slip under the radar of the CRC, you may need to revisit this assumption.

As a reminder, the CRC is a mandatory carbon trading scheme that will be introduced in 2010. Its aim is to cut carbon emission by 1.2 million tonnes in the UK by 2020. You can find out more on DECC’s website:

The CRC will be a bonus and penalty scheme, with organisations in the top half of the ‘league table’ being paid a bonus. So, it’s not all bad news: with your smart metering system in place, you will be able to eliminate energy waste – which puts you in a much stronger position to win regular CRC bonuses.

Save up to 12% on your energy bills
If you think smart metering will increase your costs, reconsider. Smart metering has reduced in price significantly over the last twelve months and the difference between the cost of monthly manual reads and the cost of obtaining remote reads and online half hourly data has narrowed dramatically.

According to the Carbon Trust, introducing smart metering can actually save you money. Last year, they undertook smart metering trials and the results showed that smart metering, when combined with consumption data and energy-saving advice, gave potential average savings of 12% a year.

It’s in your interest to go ‘smart’

To sum up, if you are in electricity Profile Class 5-8 or you consume over 732,000 kWh of gas a year, your current meters must be replaced by smart meters by 2014. This is mandatory, so you will be obliged to invest in this. However, it is in your interest to do so, as there are significant energy savings to be made with smart metering. And the savings you make will all go towards meeting the UK’s carbon emission targets. All in all, smart metering gives you an outstanding return on your investment.

Deaf-blind communication goes portable

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

Graham Hicks tests a system that integrates a Braille computer and mobile phone

A new portable device for deaf-blind people allows them to have face-to-face conversations, make phone calls using a text relay service and communicate by SMS.

The DeafBlind Communicator (DBC) consists of a Braille note-taker linked by Bluetooth to a mobile phone.

The DBC is made by assistive technology firm HumanWare and was developed in partnership with the Washington State Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing (ODHH) as well as several deaf-blind individuals.

QWERTY keyboard

Using the device, a deaf-blind person can have real time conversations in pubs and shops, with sighted friends or when conducting confidential meetings – for example with a doctor or solicitor.
Alan Davis from DBC maker HumanWare says the device opens new doors

With the Braille note-taker – a device also made by HumanWare called the BrailleNote – the deaf-blind person types a message into the device which comes with either a standard Braille or QWERTY keyboard.

This is then delivered to the screen of the mobile handset – which has special software installed on it – and the person responding then types a message back using the handset’s QWERTY keyboard.

When the mobile phone is first handed to a new speaker, it uses a voice message to inform them that the person using the equipment is blind and unable to hear.

It then asks them to communicate by typing a message on the mobile’s keyboard.

Phone service

Message from a deaf-blind person displayed on a phone

The DBC system sends messages to a mobile phone

Once the sighted person has pressed the return key, a message is sent to the BrailleNote, the deaf-blind person replies and so the exchange can continue.

The deaf-blind version of the BrailleNote has a landline connector built in which enables the user to dial up a text relay service – for example the BT-funded Typetalk service – to enable deaf-blind people to use the device to make and receive phone calls.

The DBC also gives deaf-blind people access to SMS text messaging – which has become one of the most commonly used forms of communication.

The deaf-blind person simply needs to purchase a SIM card from a mobile network operator in order to activate the service.

Web browser

The device also contains some more advanced applications which are ordinarily hidden from new users in order to reduce complication.

These include a word processor, a planner, an e-mail client, an internet browser and a digital book reader.

As and when the deaf-blind person feels ready to use them, they can be activated easily and quickly.

The DBC can also use instant messaging services like Google Talk.

“Imagine the freedom that comes from being able to communicate with nearly anyone, anywhere,” said HumanWare’s Jim Halliday.

Braille computer used by DeafBlind Communicator

A Braille computer relays messages to and from a phone

“The DBC finally gives this capability to people who are both deaf and blind.”

To see the DBC in action, the BBC met Graham Hicks at a city centre pub in Peterborough.

Mr Hicks is deaf-blind and has written an evaluation report on the device for HumanWare.

‘Liberating device’

He was able to go to the bar and order drinks from a member of staff who had never seen the DBC before as well as answering some questions from us.

The conversation took much longer than it would have between fully hearing and seeing people. However it proved to be an effective system by providing a link between two people that would otherwise be impossible.

“This gives us a great advantage that we have waited many years for”, said Mr Hicks.

Mr Hicks described the device as liberating, by giving a deaf-blind person the ability to act independently.

The DBC costs between £4,400 and £5,400 depending on the size of Braille display required.

Money to purchase the device could be obtained from the government’s Access to Work fund if the deafblind person is in work, and those in education could also get help with the cost.

From BBC web site

YouTube introduces automatic captions for deaf viewers

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

YouTube to get subtitles

Six channels run by universities are also involved in the initial launch

YouTube’s parent company Google has announced on its blog that automatic captions are to begin to roll out across the site.

The machine-generated captions will initially be generated in English. At first they will only be found on 13 channels.

These include National Geographic, Columbia, as well as most Google and YouTube channels.

The software engineer behind the technology, Ken Harrenstien, is deaf.

Currently YouTube offers a manual captioning service but video makers tend not to use it.

“The majority of user-generated video content online is still inaccessible to people like me,” Mr Harrenstien wrote in the Google blog.

His solution combines automatic speech recognition with the current caption system.

The translation is not always perfect (in a demonstration the phrase “sim card” becomes “salmon” in text), but Mr Harrenstien says that the technology “will continue to improve with time”.

Alternatively users can upload a transcript of their video and auto-timing algorithms will match the text to the words as they are spoken.

Vint Cerf, vice president at Google, is widely recognised as a founding father of the internet. He is also hard of hearing and has worn a hearing aid since the age of 13.

“One of the big challenges of the video medium is whether it can be made accessible to everyone,” he told news agency AFP.

Earlier in the week YouTube announced the launch of YouTube Direct, a feed of uploaded amateur videos of newsworthy events such as protests and extreme weather conditions.

It is aimed at the media industry, and editors who subscribe will be able to request the phone numbers of contributors. So far it has been trialled by a select group of radio stations, newspapers and websites in the US.

Japanese Firms Prototype Battery-less Remote Control

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

NEC Electronics Corp and Soundpower Corp prototyped a remote control that does not require a battery and is intended for home electric appliances.

The announcement was made Nov 17, 2009. And the remote control will be exhibited at Embedded Technology 2009, a trade show that will take place from Nov 18, 2009, in Yokohama City, Japan.

The remote control was realized by combining (1) a vibration-based power generation device developed by Soundpower, (2) NEC Electronics’ microcomputer supporting RF remote controls that use radio waves with a frequency band ranging from several tens of MHz to several GHz to transmit and receive data and (3) a power supply control technology that drives electronic circuits with a small amount of electricity.

Specifically, electricity is generated by utilizing the weak vibration caused by pressing a button on the remote control. The electronic circuits of the remote control are driven by the electricity to turn on and off a TV set, adjust the sound volume and switch channels.

NEC Electronics and Soundpower started the joint development of the remote control in December 2006. And they plan to promote its adoption by consumer-electronics makers until 2011.

Motorola to buy video company BitBand

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Motorola Inc (MOT.N) on Monday said that it would buy privately held BitBand, an Israel-based video-on-demand technology provider, to expand its home video business. Motorola said it would integrate BitBand into its Home and Networks Mobility unity, for which the company has reportedly been looking for a buyer willing to pay $4 billion to $5 billion.

Motorola, which is losing money on its mobile phones business, did not disclose the terms of the BitBand deal. It expects to close the transaction in the current quarter.

BitBand provides Internet-based television technology to 60 operators in countries such as Holland, Italy and Russia, Motorola said.

Shares of Motorola rose 8 cents to $8.86 in morning trading on New York Stock Exchange

Netflix Goes Live On Sony’s Bravia HDTVs, Blu-ray Players

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Netflix’s video-streaming catalog is now available directly through Sony’s Bravia HDTVs and Blu-ray Disc players.

Netflix on Sony Bravia HDTVThe Netflix “Watch Instantly” streaming feature, available for no extra charge to most of the company’s 11.1 million DVD-by-mail subscribers, now provides some 17,000 titles on demand. Content partners include Starz Entertainment, MTV Networks and ABC and Disney Channel.

Separately, last month Netflix and Sony Computer Entertainment America announced a partnership to enable the streaming feature available on the PlayStation 3 gaming console.

Netflix’s Internet video-on-demand service is available on an array of other devices, including Microsoft’s Xbox 360, TiVo DVRs, LG Electronics televisions and Blu-ray players, and the Roku Internet set-top box.

The Sony Bravia US models now available to instantly stream movies and TV episodes from Netflix include the W5100, Z5100, XBR9, and XBR10 series in 40-inch, 46-inch and 52-inch screen sizes, which are priced from $1,100 to $5,000. Sony’s N460 Network Blu-ray Disc Player, listed at $250, is also able to access the Netflix service if connected to the Internet.

Connecting Smart Buildings to the Smart Grid

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Suggesting turning off the lights in our buildings has been a constant theme. Saving or conserving energy, especially when the cleaning crew and security personnel are the only ones occupying a 250,000 sq ft office tower, makes sense at a very basic level. You would think that a simple concept such as conserving energy in our built environment would be easy to deploy. Given that energy, and thus our independence, is on everyone’s mind, combined with the fact that buildings use 40+% of the total daily energy spend, one would expect it to be a high priority.

Over the years engineers have introduced a number of different ideas, concepts and technologies that would help building owners conserve energy. Even to this day, adoption of these “common sense” ideas have been met with great resistance. In trying to better understand why this remains such a low priority I’ve summarized the common client drivers  / observations:

1) during the boom times, making money trumped every other priority,

2) in many situations tenants paid the utility bills and the landlord had no motivation to conserve,

3) real estate companies have struggled with “who” in their organization should take responsibility for this issue (IT,PM,FM,Energy),

4) while executives promoted “green” for marketing purposes, commitment and execution was superficial and

5) many of these technologies involve CAPEX or in some cases initial impacts to OPEX investments and without the motivation of a “return”, never made it past the budgeting process.

There have been bursts of interest in this topic by the built environment over the last 5-7 years. In fact there are case studies of real estate companies who have implemented sophisticated technology solutions to monitor and manage their energy consumption with a much greater level of accuracy. Over the last 24-30 months, many of our trade associations have also joined in the battle to conserve and begun to aggressively educate their memberships on conserving energy. While all of these “green” initiatives have been positive, there has been little discussion on the role that technology, automation and innovation can play. While insulated windows an important part of the strategy so is a lighting strategy that can reduce energy costs by 50%.

Enter the Smart Grid discussion.

About 2-3 years ago the discussion of the Smart Grid started to heat up. Major companies like GE, IBM, Siemens and, most recently Cisco and Google, started to beat the drum on the benefits of being able to manage electricity in more sophisticated ways. Instead of producing power in big old clunky power plants and “broadcasting” the energy down very old “asynchronous” (one way) power lines, the idea has emerged of a “networked”, very smart, easy to manage electrical infrastructure that connects both your refrigerator to the network as well as the solar panel or wind turbine that you have in your backyard or the roof of your office building. The idea is big, the benefits are big, the issues are big, and so are the challenges. While the marketing of many of these large smart grid companies would lead you to believe that the technology is in place and everything has been figured out, there are a mountain of questions ranging from privacy issues to standards and everything in between.

One of those big issues to be figured out is how to we “connect” a smart building to the smart grid and what if we’re starting with a building that is not so smart. One of the most basic questions that need to be answered is “who in a building takes charge of this issue.” Buildings have many number of different tenant landlord relationships, from owner occupied to multi-tenant. The relationship in many cases will influence who takes the lead on this important topic. Once the “business” side of the equation is figured out, then you move to the building technology and ultimately the relationship with the smart grid. These are very big questions and in many respects are the primary reasons that so many building owners have not initiated an energy plan. The other major reasons for slow response to this issue is the maturity of the technology (still evolving) and the regulatory role of local, and national government agencies.

If you break the smart grid into three distinct categories it is a little easier to understand.

We have the:

1) “middle infrastructure” i.e. the transmission lines, sub-stations etc.,

2) the power plants – both traditional as well as the emerging technologies, and

3) the end user, which in our world translates to the building.

These make up the major components of the smart grid. When we isolate the building’s role it’s easy to understand why this is such a complex issue. It’s not only the connectivity of the building to the smart grid, but also the internal infrastructure of the building that needs to be automated in order to create a completely digital, transparent connection. Connecting a building to the smart grid without considering the tenant space will leave you with less than desired results. The topic gets even more complex when you consider all the other building technologies that need to be considered for integration into the building network such as security, tenant communications etc. at the same time you are trying to figure out the connectivity into the smart grid for the purpose energy management and conservation.

The benefits of the smart grid begin to get very interesting when you start talking about how a commercial building owner could gain financially from this concept. Just imagine you’re at 30,000 feet looking down on a major city and picture all the buildings being turned into individual solar and other renewable energy source power plants that could sell unused energy back to utilities via smart grid technologies. There are some who have speculated that this could be a significant income stream for owners and operators once the idea is adequately developed.

The bottom line is that the idea of smart buildings connecting to the smart grid is an idea whose time has come. Whether adoption is fueled by financial opportunities or by strict legislation, this idea is not going away. In the early stages, as with all new technologies and ideas, there are more questions than answers. However, last week’s announcement by the US Obama administration on their 3.2 billion dollar commitment to the smart grid is sure to advance the topic and produce real results.

The question remains how will BUILDINGS CONNECT to the SMART GRID, with technology companies developing products and exploring this new major industry (as it will become). Which company will become the brand leader, but even more important is which real estate owners will become the  known  to champion this technology, and get an competitive edge on its rivals.

On Hold Considerations

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

An important part of spending wisely in a harsh economic climate is establishing where to stop spending. All IT and building projects are fair game in this process, whether they take the form of custom applications, software maintenance, support services, infrastructure, networking or telecommunications. Remembering that placing a project on hold implies that you intend to resume it at a later point, take a look at what criteria you should consider before choosing which projects to put on ice.

The cost factor
The bottom line is without doubt the biggest and most important consideration factor. For a project to be successful from a business perspective, it should ultimately result in increased revenue, decreased expense, and reduced risk. A project needs to meet at least one of these requirements to be kept going, and it needs to do so within an acceptable time frame. Sunk costs should not be considered when deciding whether or not to pull the plug on a project; these will never be retrieved and should be written off as such.

The time factor
To ensure sustainability, it follows logically that smaller projects with shorter return periods should be prioritized over larger projects with longer return periods. Resources locked into longer-term implementations could be better employed on shorter quicker projects.

The stakeholders
Often overlooked and underrated, make a point of gaining buy-in from the relevant business community when putting a project on ice. Having on hold buy-in will go a long way to gaining stakeholder trust. You should aim to have as much support for putting a project on hold as you would for kicking it off.

Consider the key personnel involved in a project and assess the likelihood of their availability when the project would foreseeably be re-introduced. Relying on an irreplaceable member who may not be around at recommencement could possibly be the only reason not to place a project on hold.

Consider also, the effect on dependent projects of placing a project on hold. For example, the management team might have plans for executive reporting functionality from an ERP. Plan around mitigating the effects on these and ensure the relevant people are kept in the loop.

Structure your stop
Make a point of mitigating future risks when putting a project on hold. Where the impending absence of a critical member is a factor, ensuring knowledge transfer to replacement project members before the project is placed on hold is essential. All processes and research to date and should be fully documented, and interim work-arounds implemented. A structured stop thus reduces the expected ramp-up time for recommencement, making the option more attractive than if the project ended suddenly.

What is your investment strategy?
While it may be the last item on the minds of most, a downturn can be a great time to gain competitive advantage. Where a company has some capital in reserve, and an aggressive investment strategy, it might be worth outlaying the cost in favor of competitive gain. While an enterprising idea is coupled with substantial risk in a volatile climate, the long-term return of a well realized initiative might place you ahead of the game when things recover.

What to do when you’ve hit pause
Remaining effective when things are quiet shouldn’t be difficult if you plan correctly:

  • Go internal
  • – A quiet period is a good time to hammer out those items which require internal resources and relative stability e.g. hardware or software upgrades.

  • Don’t lower quality
  • – While the immediate need is to cut cost, this shouldn’t be at the expense of quality of service.

  • Make a ‘Play’ checklist
  • – Decide what the core criteria are for assessing how to take a project off its ‘on hold’ status, and establish interval check points.

  • Identify key personnel
  • – Identify the key personnel involved in ‘frozen’ projects and consider their availability when it kicks off.

  • Ensure you’re set for the upswing
  • – Where you don’t have the ability to seize the opportunity to excel in a downturn, it’s worth preparing yourself internally for the recovery of the economy. By fully documenting projects on hold, making internal processes efficient to facilitate future growth, and finessing the lower priority processes, you will ultimate make the revival easier.

    Two more utilities join IBM-backed smart grid coalition

    Thursday, November 19th, 2009

    Two new utility companies have joined The Global Intelligent Utility Network (IUN) Coalition, which is a group formed by IBM that is pushing best practices for smart grid technologies and installations.

    The new members are CPFL Energia (Brazil) and Liander (The Netherlands). The four U.S. members (CenterPoint Energy, Pepco Holdings, Progress Energy, and San Diego Gas and Electric) collectively were granted $3.4 billion last month in federal funding for their various smart grid pilots and projects.

    The collective mission statement of the Global IUN is to use “digital intelligence” to help reduce outages and faults, manage demand and integrate new sources of energy such as wind into the power grid. The group was responsible for developing the Smart Grid Maturity Model, which is now being used by more than 60 utilities as part of smart grid strategy and planning.

    EPA’s Energy Star program 1 million homes now “qualified”under the Energy Star program for energy efficiency.

    Thursday, November 19th, 2009

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports this week that more than 1 million homes have been “qualified” under the Energy Star program for energy efficiency. That means the people who have worked to have their homes labeled or checked against the Energy Star recommendations have saved $1.2 billion on their energy bills and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 22 billion pounds, according to the EPA. This year, the annual savings in electricity costs will be about $270 million, with emissions reductions equipment to approximately 370,000 vehicles.

    What goes into an Energy Star home?

    There are about 6,500 builders around the country that can represent the insulation, high performance windows, duct work, heating and cooling equipment, lighting and appliances that are part of the rating process. An inspector can come in and rate your home for you. The top markets for Energy Star are pretty much which you might expect: Major cities around the country. Three midwest communities that have made this a priority, including Des Moines, Iowa; Indianapolis and Oklahoma City.

    More evidence of the coming collision between home broadband and the smart grid

    Thursday, November 19th, 2009

    One trend that will pick up steam in 2010 is technologies and alliances that bring the current home broadband infrastructure (Home Automation network) and the emerging smart grid infrastructure closer together. After all, viagra canadian pharmacy as more homes embrace high-speed Internet access (wired OR wireless), it makes sense that smart meters and other smart grid devices communicate via what is already in place.

    Anticipating this convergence of interests, iControl Networks has come out with a platform called ConnectedLife Energy Management. The technology, which is intended for broadband operators, utility companies and other service providers, will allow for the development of demand response systems and other energy-efficiency services. The company expects Connected Life Energy Management to be commercially available to consumers sometime in 2010. It would allow for applications such as scheduled energy usage that is tailored to meet certain efficiency or carbon footprint goals.

    Here are some of the consumer-level applications that will be possible:

    • Real-time energy usage monitoring
    • Remoted management of thermostats from an Internet browse, iPhone or other mobile phones
    • Automation applications that, for example, would let you set up thermostat configurations for your air-conditioning or heating systems
    • Ability to manage your account against certain cost parameters

    Google – Chrome OS: Some Early Preview Videos

    Thursday, November 19th, 2009

    Today Google released a number of early introduction/preview videos regarding their upcoming Chrome OS.

    While the software does not currently appear to be in an easily installable state, requiring developers to build their own Chrome OS environments for the time being, the OS does look quite promising and Google’s “Stateless” objective where all user data resides in the cloud reflects an extremely modern concept in OS design.

    What is Chrome OS?:

    User Interface Concept Video for Chrome OS:

    Chromium OS and Open Source:

    Do these videos provide encouragement or interest in Google’s stateless, cloud-based OS offering?