During our trip round the Panasonic Center in Tokyo last week, it was easy to be impressed by the breadth of technology the Japanese electronics giant has at its disposal.
But tricky questions about the environmental cost of large-scale technology consumption are never far away. We're obviously impressed by Panasonic's 150-inch plasma TV. But how much does it spike your electricity bill when you turn it on?
We're all familiar with the big eco buzzwords by now - carbon footprints, greenhouse gas emissions, recyclables and sustainability. And, frankly, these concepts are far more important in the long-term than how big a TV is or how many nanobots can fit on the head of a pin.
So it was a relief to be introduced to Panasonic’s vision of a cleaner future in its Eco & UD House.
How has Panasonic gone green?
The Eco bit of the 'Eco & UD House' is obvious. But the UD stands for Universal Design, an important concept we’ll return to later.
From the outside, the beige two-up two-down looks anything but a ¥100 million (£490,000) showcase for Panasonic’s green credentials. But the interior tells a very different story.
The official line from Panasonic is that the Eco & UD House is, "based on predictions regarding people's lifestyle in 2010." Crucially, it's designed to reduce CO2 emissions by up to two thirds.
According to Panasonic, the greenest features of the Eco House are its energy-saving appliances. As we saw in our previous article, simple lifestyle changes (like using greener TVs and long-lasting light bulbs) can add up to a substantial saving on your yearly electricity bill.
Who wants a Wind Seagull?
Next on Panasonic's live-greener list is better home insulation and the use of solar panels and windmills to generate electricity. Panasonic’s U-Vacua insulation – made by vacuum-packing thick foam pieces into thin silver-coated tiles that can be used anywhere – is amongst the best in the world.
If you've not encountered it before, Panasonic's Wind Seagull is a mast that combines solar and wind power generation in one handy unit. The rest of the energy-saving in the Eco & UD House comes from a domestic hydrogen fuel cell and an intelligent power management system.
The hydrogen fuel cell installed at the Eco House is nothing particularly new - pilot schemes using similar technology are already underway in Japan. But Panasonic's Home Energy Management System (HEMS) looks particularly impressive.
HEMS relies on monitoring how appliances use electricity and when they do so. A live data feed goes from a central computer to screens all over the house. This shows how much power has been drawn from the grid, what has been self-generated by the house, the cost of running individual appliances and advice on when to use devices most efficiently.
The official Panasonic line for HEMS is “from efficient energy consumption to energy generation … a new link between your home and the global environment.” But the prominence given to displaying how much money can be saved using HEMS makes it clear that saving money is at least as important for most of us.
RFID door keys and iris scanners
So, that’s the essence of the power- (and, hence, planet-) saving that could be incorporated into Japanese homes before too long.
But Panasonic's Eco & UD House also boasts some high-tech solutions to improve a family's quality of life.
The front door is – naturally – protected by an wireless entry system.
This uses the RFID phone-based technology that’s so common in Japan now. Anyone without an authorised phone just ain’t getting in.
When we tried to sneak by the all-seeing eye, we got a blast on an alarm and were snapped by a camera mounted on the Wind Seagull mast we mentioned earlier. The Panasonic guide only let us in after showing off the incriminating security snapshot that had been beamed to her handheld.
For access to the goodies inside the house proper, Panasonic has installed an iris scanner for authorised staff, although we imagine such unfriendly tech isn’t going to be on the shopping list of many real homeowners.
Once inside, we found a pleasant wood-themed house that – in spite of its green credentials – was still filled with consumer gadgetry. Even the bathroom has an internet-connected TV to go with the programmable bath and shower.
Futurism is all curvy edges...
The kitchen is the one area where the ‘Universal Design’ aspect of the Eco & UD House’s name comes to the fore. For most people, having a living space that’s comfortable clearly comes streets ahead of owning the best home cinema or entertainment robot. And this is where the kitchen excels.
Rounded corners and easy-access storage spaces are the order of the day – something that can make the difference between being independent or, if you're an elderly resident, reliant on others.
A bedroom (also designed for Japan's older generation) includes voice-controlled lighting and curtains and a strong emphasis on comfort.
Even the plastered walls use non-allergenic materials.
Elsewhere at Panasonic, we also got to see another concept using RFID food tags and a talking handheld reader that could help visually impaired people work out what’s in the fridge. A taste test doesn’t have to be the only way to tell the difference between a bottle of olive oil and a litre of Smirnoff.
The living room of the future
The centrepiece of Panasonic's Eco & UD House is clearly the living room, which was dominated by one of Panasonic's enormous 103-inch plasma TVs.
As you can probably guess, this gave an impressive window on every aspect of the home - from displaying feeds from the interior and exterior cameras to the entire security and energy systems.
Unlike most TV remotes these days, the controller for what Panasonic called the 'Ubiquitous Living Room' had only a few buttons and was easy to use, in keeping with the Universal Design ethos that the house is trying to embody.
The command-tower nature of the living room summed up the Eco House in many ways. Although being able to keep every finger on the pulse at all times is appealing in many ways, it has to be said that there was a certain impersonal froideur about a lot of the technology on show.
It would be easy to poke fun at an unrealistic Jetsons-like vision of the future that, because of cost dictates, clearly can’t be available to everyone. But we have to applaud the spirit of Panasonic's Eco House and look forward to seeing how much of its green tech really becomes part of our lives.