Home management services - Orca leads the way

Orca, a new world-first technology developed in New Zealand, allows consumers to access a range of services from the comfort and convenience of their own home.

Orca was developed by Southpower, an energy company based in Christchurch. But while Southpower has played a leading role in the implementation of the trial installation, there are other companies that form part of the ORCA consortium energy providers Powerco and Mercury Energy, Enerco New Zealand, Westpac Trust Banking, TVNZ television services and Clear Communications.

In addition services will be provided by a wine society, pizza home delivery companies, video hire companies and a security company. And the Orca keypad provides access to the e-mail network, as well as allowing automatic control of appliances, which can be turned on or off at pre-programmed times via electronic messages from Orca.

Five hundred randomly selected homes were invited to take part in the trials, which began in July and will last four months, with a month to ramp up and ramp down. These homes will be able to enjoy services such as banking, home security monitoring, fast food and wine ordering, energy use and account information and management, and access to news and information.

Orca can be operated through a variety of terminals. Most people on the trial will have a simple keypad installed, which has a two-line LCD display which can be operated by pushing buttons. A home PC can also be connected up to Orca. Both these systems offer customers a menu from which to choose the service they require.

In addition to the customer interface, a base unit is also installed in the home. This is connected to the telephone line, and receives and transmits the data which ensures services are delivered. A unit which interfaces with the electricity, gas or water meter will also be installed.

The major advantage offered by Orca is that one keypad unit allows participants to access a wide range of services. This will mean that people only need to buy one piece of equipment when the scheme is launched commercially.

Families involved in the trial will be able to access information on current energy use on an hourly basis; energy used that day; energy used the previous day; and energy used in the last seven days. They are also able to obtain current account information (balance, payment due date and so on).

Half way through the trial those taking part will be able to choose their electricity supplier - either Southpower, Powerco or Mercury Energy. This will be the first real choice of energy supplier offered to residential customers in New Zealand, and it represents a significant breakthrough.

Orca is the first demonstration of large scale use of home services technology anywhere in the world, and already a lot of interest has been shown by the US and countries in Europe. The technologies used have been proved, but they are combined in an innovative way, driven by customer needs.

Market research has shown that people are keen to be able to use technology to undertake ordinary and often time consuming tasks from their home at a time that suits them. In the future the range and number of services offered will be much wider, and customers will be able to choose from a range of businesses offering the same product or service. This will encourage greater competition between service providers like banks, fast food outlets and energy.

Well into the trial period, the reaction of all the homes involved has been extremely positive.