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Home Smart Home

Electronic controllers are creating high-tech houses that do everything but tuck you in at night (though they will turn off the lights)
Daren Fonda
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, Jan/Feb 00

(continued from page 1)

For now, most "smart homes" (as the industry calls them) remain comparatively dumb. Even systems like TronArch can't recommend what groceries you need or if your walls could use replastering. Not that anyone would necessarily want a house that brainy. Just think of Ray Bradbury's short story "There Will Come Soft Rains" in The Martian Chronicles, and the smart-home idea starts to sound like a science fiction nightmare. Bradbury describes a house that continues serving meals and cleaning floors long after its residents have died. Luddites can rest assured, though: today's so-called intelligent homes are benign creatures, humble servants dedicated to alleviating drudgery.  

What does a typical automated home look like? In some ways, not that different from Jerry Rich's mansion, albeit on a smaller scale. Peggy and Clark Graham of Mobile, Alabama, installed a Vantage Vision system when they remodeled their 6,500-square-foot ranch house in 1997. The home's brain is a control panel in the utility closet, which links all its "subsystems"--the air conditioning, lighting and security--and distributes commands to and from wall-mounted keypads in various rooms. The Grahams use the keypads to set lighting and to control their audio/video sources, draperies and storm shutters, and other appliances. Hitting the "sleep" button in their master bedroom arms the outdoor security system and shuts off all unnecessary lights.

The "projector" button in the bedroom pulls down a 100-inch screen, dims the lights, closes the curtains and starts the video projector, mounted in the canopy above their bed. After dark, motion detectors in the driveway trigger the kitchen lights, which are programmed to turn on when the couple enters. Pressing a panic button will set off flashing lights in every room and alert the Grahams' security company.   But for all its high-tech wizardry, an automated home should still look like a home. "The idea is to keep the house as normal-looking as possible," says Mike Esposito, a Vantage installer in Pleasantville, New York. "You don't want to have the screens everywhere, because that scares people."

Installing a Vantage controller for the whole house could cost more than $40,000 if walls and floors need to be opened to route through sensors and electrical cables. But the system's main attraction--its high level of automation--is also its Achilles' heel. If the system crashes or you decide you don't like a preprogrammed "scene," your installation guru will have to make the repairs or adjustments. Unlike TronArch, Vantage's software is inaccessible to homeowners, and a professional installer is probably the only one (unless you're an engineering genius) who'll understand how the system works.  

Less complex, and a lot cheaper, is turning your PC into a home manager. One funky system, a real-life version of HAL--the computer that goes berserk in 2001: A Space Odyssey--can network your house into a virtual spaceship. Like its cheeky film cousin, the HAL 2000 system operates through voice commands: you hook it up to your PC and modem, then issue commands from microphones anywhere in the house. HAL is programmed to understand spoken phrases such as "turn bathroom lights on" and can link thermostats, security sensors and other electronic appliances. You can also phone HAL and ask it to retrieve e-mail, stock reports and Internet data.  

Unless your PC turns evil and decides to play homewrecker, HAL probably won't run amok; it simply isn't brainy enough. In industry language, HAL is a "retrofit" system, making use of the house's existing electrical wiring to send commands between appliances and subsystems.

Automating lights or timing the coffee to start percolating when the alarm clock rings is simple: you plug in a module (available from Radio Shack under the "plugn power" label or directly from X-10, the manufacturer, at between the appliance and the wall and then send on/off commands from a transmitter or wireless remote via radio frequency, infrared network or power lines. Timing the porch lights to come on at night or setting the thermostat back to save energy during the day are common applications.

You can also network the modules using PC software. With X-10's ActiveHome program, homeowners can write scripts for their houses to act out: opening the garage door could disarm the security system, trigger indoor lights and start music on a CD player. IBM's Home Director software features a "lifestyle" function that learns the way lights and appliances are used and can replay the same patterns, making the home look occupied when residents are away.  

Today, more than 5 million homes contain at least one X-10 module, usually for remote-controlled lighting or timed thermostats. But turning your house into an intelligent machine will require more advanced circuitry. "Right now, we don't have smart houses," says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future, a California think tank. "What we have are smart archipelagos or islands of automation. We're still slouching toward the ambitious home."  

The problem, say Saffo and other industry experts, is that we live in electronic Towers of Babel. Appliances, from your air conditioner to TV, all speak different languages. Until your clothes dryer can beam a signal to your TV, for example, informing you with a little icon that your laundry's done, your house won't be smart by most measures. Homes prewired with a central controller can work around that problem--given skilled software--but appliances incompatible with the systems' communications protocol will remain out of the loop.  

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