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Master Of Your Domain

With futuristic home automation systems at the doorstep, our homes will never be the same again.
August 1, 1999
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/25296

Years ago, we watched TV's George Jetson sit in his futuristic home controlling everything with the touch of a button or holding a videoconference with his not-so-nice boss, and thought, "Yeah, right. Not in my lifetime." But now that there's high-speed Internet access for the home, wireless data networks and cool technologies to control your lights, sprinklers and security system via cell phone, that highly evolved home of the future is much more of a reality (minus the nasty boss, of course!).

Home automation systems that automate not only home offices but entire homes are no longer a vision of what's to come--they're here and now. Yet they're more than just nifty technologies to wirelessly access computer files while you're out sunning by the pool or to turn your lights on and off remotely just for fun. Home automation systems improve access to information, make everyday home and office tasks earlier, and afford you complete control over your 21st century working environment: the home.

Ready to take your humble abode into the next millennium? Here's a look at some of the latest home automation tools around--and a glimpse at what's coming down the pike. George Jetson, here we come . . .

Network Ready

Home automation generally refers to a variety of automated functions, which, like surfing the
Internet from your TV or controlling security and air conditioning through one centrally automated system, don't even involve desktop computers.

Still, particularly in the infancy stages of the home automation revolution, the PC plays a very
integral role. That's because the growing trend of more homes having multiple PCs is driving a sharp need for home networking solutions, generally considered the first step in automating the
home.

This year, home networking (connecting two or more PCs for the purpose of sharing files or
Internet access) has taken off. Considering the growing pervasiveness of the Internet in our
lives, many home owners are connecting their computers to allow multiple users simultaneous
access to the Internet. This, coupled with home users' growing desire for faster, high-speed Internet access technologies like xDSL, ISDN and cable modems, is essentially the framework for the new fully automated home.

"Distributed Internet access is the vision [of the Internet] in the home of the future," explains Mark Schmidt, director of marketing for IBM home networking solutions. "Just like other [home automation] components that are easily distributed and controlled throughout the home, Internet access available anywhere in the home is extremely important to the home automation movement."

To date, home networking solutions, which have largely centered around traditional "wired" Ethernet-based products, haven't been largely adopted. That's because they're very complicated to implement, involving the routing of cables around the house and installing network interface cards and hubs. However, faster adoption is a near certainty, thanks to the recent release of less invasive solutions that work with the home's existing infrastructure.

New power-line networks take advantage of power lines, or AC wiring, that are already built in to home. The widespread availability of AC jacks around the house makes them a very attractive solution. One downfall: The latest technologies transfer data at a sluggish pace, less than 1 Mbps. Two leading power-line networking products are the PassPort Plug-In Network by Intelogis (http://www.intelogis.com) at $150 and Enikia's Information Appliance Network (http://www.enikia.com; pricing not available).

Phone-line networks, which use the telephone lines in your house to build a network, are another option. Tut Systems' Home Run product (http://www.tutsys.com; pricing not available) and Intel's new AnyPoint Home Network product line (http://www.intel.com/anypoint), which starts at $189, offer several ways to establish a phone-line network with speeds up to 1 Mbps.

In addition, wireless solutions allowing for completely untethered network access are now the most flexible solutions around. When equipped on your notebook, that makes checking sports scores on the Internet from bed, or accessing files off a home office computer while lying on the couch a blissful reality. Wireless LANs use an RF band (2.4GHz) to transmit data or offer shared Internet access wirelessly. Proxim's Symphony Cordless Networking Suite (http://www.proxim.com/symphony) delivers wireless data rates of 1.6 Mbps. 3Com's new AirConnect Wireless LAN (http://www.3com.com) lets users send and receive information at speeds up to a whopping 11 Mbps.

As home networking solutions evolve, expect to see data distributed throughout the home at much faster speeds, possibly up to 100 Mbps. In addition, home networks will also support entertainment-related media like video-on-demand (think: movies stored on a central server in your home, accessible all day, any day), music-on-demand and more.

How May I Serve You?

Home automation tools have long suffered from a bad rap. However, solutions from IBM and others have come a long way in the areas of ease-of-use, system integration and installation.

"In the past, integration and networking of systems would take a whole lot of custom design and installation work," Schmidt says. "IBM has standardized the work [for its system integrators] so it can be installed in a mass market kind of approach. We've designed the system with the consumer in mind."

Indeed, IBM's Home Director system has tools that really put home owners back in charge. Instead of being a slave to your home, Home Director gives you complete control over its main systems--lighting, air conditioning, garage door control, heating and security--all from one central location. More than just control, it turns your dwelling into a "smart" home with intelligent operations.

For instance, say you're experiencing a blustery, cold streak. Just program IBM's Home Director to turn the heat up to 75 degrees about 15 minutes before you arrive home so everything's toasty warm when you get there. In the near future, the system will have the capacity to automatically check weather info from the Internet and not turn on the sprinklers if it's going to rain. Nifty security features will even fire off an e-mail letting you know your child has arrived home safely from school.

All this is made possible with two main components: IBM's Home Network Controller and Web Point systems. Home Network Controller is a dedicated computing appliance that monitors and controls common home systems such as lighting, air conditioning and security and takes data currently available from home subsystems and makes it meaningful. Simple to use, you can even change routine settings for your security interface, heating, ventilation and air conditioning via your TV. IBM Web Point allows family members to simultaneously access the Internet through a single connection. Presently, the system is compatible with 56K modems; Schmidt says wireless Internet access and phone-line based Internet distribution that supports cable and DSL modems will be available later this year.

Home Director systems, which are priced between $8,000 to $15,000, are currently being integrated by a number of major home builders into new homes nationwide. IBM Web Point is available to the consumer market. For more information, visit the IBM Home Director Web site at www.ibm.com/homedirector.

Talking To Your Toaster

On the horizon are a number of smart appliances, or information appliances, that gain their intelligence largely from the Internet. In this post-PC era, smart appliances will give home dwellers access to much-needed information anywhere, any time.

Zip forward a few years to a time when, perhaps, your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule so you can plan your morning over a cup of joe. Or your refrigerator will sense the compressor is about to blow and contact the manufacturer via e-mail. They're simple yet smart appliances with intelligent functions that could make a real difference in your life or business.

Already, smart appliances like so-called Internet microwaves and Internet refrigerators are hitting the market. Devices like the Internet refrigerator let you send a quick e-mail to a client while your pasta is cooling, surf over to Virtual Vineyards to check out the best in fine wine or gather more info about the pesto penne you're preparing to cook.

OK, so perhaps not all of us relish the idea of connecting to the Internet from our toaster. No doubt the key to success for these kinds of devices won't just be their niftiness, but their inherent usefulness. "The question is whether the right level of consumer usage [can be] built into each product, not just whether it's cool," Schmidt says.

Some computer-based products like CoolMan (http://www.coolmaninc.com) already intelligently integrate the Internet into the home. CoolMan is essentially a talking computer that provides the whole family with Internet access, as well as some home automation features. Functions can be controlled via the in-house computer system, by voice commands picked up by cordless microphones throughout the house--even by cell phone.

If you're into multitasking, simply issue the command to have CoolMan read your e-mail to you while you're shaving in the morning; the command will be picked up by a microphone and e-mail read back to you via a 900MHz cordless speakerphone in your bathroom. You can control all kinds of household functions like your garage door, thermostat, security and lighting. Enter your preferred schedule into CoolMan, or issue the command verbally to cut the lights or turn up the heat.

A complete, end-to-end hardware/software solution, CoolMan consists of a Pentium III 450MHz computer with 8GB hard-drive space, 80MB of RAM and a video-conferencing camera, as well as a Microsoft 900MHz speakerphone. CoolMan is available for a flat fee of $2,999 or a one-time $499 payment and a monthly $39 service charge (including Internet access and all upgrades).

Plugged In

The digital revolution is playing a huge part in the fully automated home of the future. Down the road, all kinds of consumer digital devices should be fully compatible with your in-home network and home automation system, Schmidt says.

For instance, expect to plug your digital camera into a dataport in your home and download all your digital images to a network storage device that acts as a digital photo album, storing all your favorite business photos or your important graphics. Or access important data or images on the server from your HDTV set.

New wireless "workpads," similar in size and function to 3Com's PalmPilot, could be used more commonly in homes as well. Say you're carrying your workpad as you enter the TV room. A motion sensor in your home's security system could detect your presence, activating the entertainment console that wirelessly routes the latest television programming to your workpad. Tap on your workpad, and it would automatically turn on the TV show you want to see.

Other so-called network appliances, or thin servers, will plug into your home network to provide a variety of business and entertainment functions. The possibilities are endless and undeniably attractive: video servers to store all your favorite movies for viewing on-demand or music servers that store MP3 audio files and act as a "digital jukebox."

Of course, there's a long way to go before all this can happen. Standards for common household and consumer devices to connect to home networks, usually wirelessly, must first be adopted. Moreover, high-speed home networks and broadband information pipes into the home must become more commonplace as well.

Still, there's no denying we're currently laying the foundation for the fully automated home. All the crucial technologies are quickly coming into play as well, paving the way for what will certainly be a whole new, much smarter way of living and working from home in the 21st century.