Such a product isn't available in stores just yet. But a prototype sits on a cart in an engineering lab at Drexel University. And though the four Drexel students who spent nine months designing the product are going their separate ways after graduation, they hope to stay in touch - through the Internet, of course - and get their invention to market.
The four - two immigrants from Vietnam and two international students from Bulgaria and Spain - displayed their contraption yesterday before a panel of judges at Drexel's annual senior project design competition. They landed third place and $500 - but if they can sell the computer software they created and turn it into a popular product, they could make plenty more.
As Bulgarian native Christo Ibouchev, 23, stood before the classroom filled with engineers who were serving as judges, he talked about Web servers and controllers and modules.
After he worked the computer attached to their invention, a floor lamp suddenly lit up the room and a coffeemaker started to gurgle.
Ibouchev explained how a timing system in their software - they call the entire invention an ICU, for Internet controller unit - could allow for commands to be punched in for an hour, a day, a year ahead. He said that after connecting home appliances to the little metal ICU box, and loading a home computer with the software they designed, users would be able to control their appliances, regulate their house air-conditioning and heating units, even view goings-on at home with live video, from any desktop or portable computer in the world - all through the Internet, and all for a modest $250 to $500 or so.
Every engineering student at Drexel must complete a design project senior year, and Ibouchev and his three compatriots banded together in September.
Both Ibouchev and Luis Gomez-Llorente, a 24-year-old from Madrid, had had long-running love affairs with the computer from childhood, and use the Internet all the time to keep in contact with family and friends in Europe. But even so, the project proved tough going.
At one point they had crossed some wires in their little metal box, and that burned out their interface card. They spent many all-nighters trying to get the software right. And then came their first presentation before the engineering department.
They had gotten maybe two hours of sleep in the two days and nights before their scheduled presentation at 9 a.m., and early that morning they plodded groggily into the lab to get ready. They were quickly zapped awake when one of the computers they planned to use in the presentation crashed. Ibouchev jumped in a cab to save time and roared three blocks to his apartment, where he grabbed another computer and rushed back to campus. The group, which included Phuc Nguyen of Allentown and Minh Dang of Lancaster, worked feverishly and managed to get the new computer working in time for the presentation.
``It was a horror story,'' said Nguyen.
Yesterday, by comparison, went like a breeze. They placed third behind a group of five students who designed a way to extend the PATCO line to 30th Street Station, a timely topic given the SEPTA strike. Second place went to a group who designed a way to stabilize a slope where a low-income housing development is built in Costa Rica.
The third-place computer guys think they could market their ICU to parents who want to keep an eye on baby-sitters or family pets while on vacation, or to the absentminded who forget to turn off appliances before going to work, or the time-crazed who might want to turn the air conditioner on before they get home.
They also think it could make life easier for scientists, chemists and engineers who have to conduct experiments for many hours at a stretch. They could go home at a reasonable hour and check in on the experiment from the comfort of their living room easy chair.
Innocently enough, though, the group may have stumbled onto something that conjures disturbing thoughts of Big Brother from George Orwell's novel 1984. After all, what baby-sitter would want to know that an employer could be peering at her from halfway across town?