Can Home Automation Click With the Masses?

Remote-control systems move beyond the TV couch

Get ready for the automated home.

It will turn on the outdoor lights when you return from work and press the garage-door button. The security system will deactivate, the hall lights will go on, and the stereo will start up your favorite music. The heating system, preprogrammed to start up half an hour earlier, has the temperature just right.

Individually, these systems have been around for years. But a bevy of companies is working to make them work together with push-button ease. Once the plaything of the wealthy and the electronics hobbyist, home automation is beginning to filter into a broader consumer base.

"Home automation is like air conditioning," says Will West, president of Phast, a Salt Lake City maker of home-automation systems. "Three to five years out, it will be in most [new] homes."

That's an aggressive forecast. According to Electronic House magazine, only one-third of 1 percent of homes in the United States are automated today. What may change this is a move by small high-end companies to attract a broader base of customers and the entrance into the field of huge computer and consumer electronics companies.

In a survey last year of 850 consumers, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA) found that the market for home-automation systems could reach $36 billion in the next five or six years. But marketing will have to improve, the survey suggests, since only half of consumers are aware that home automation exists, and most of those who do already have home computers and other high-end electronic devices, says Todd Thibodeaux, a senior economist at CEMA.

Phast is an example of a high-end automation company trying to become more mainstream. Started as a subsidiary of AMX, the company plans by the end of next month to ship a software system that automates newly built homes that cost as little as $200,000. Adding home automation increases a new home's cost by about 2 to 3 percent, Mr. West estimates.

Meanwhile, big companies are beginning to enter the field from the low end. Thomson Consumer Electronics, for example, began shipping a $99 home-automation kit last October, that includes automatic switches for lights and controlling software for home computers. The system is based around remotes made by Thomson, which also makes RCA television sets and other brand-name electronics.

Now, instead of using a remote to turn on an RCA TV and videocassette recorder, the Thomson remote user can wander the house pushing buttons to turn on lights and appliances. "We wanted to expand the use of remote control," says Jean Shea, marketing manager at Thomson's accessories business. "It has been a very popular item."

IBM, not surprisingly, is moving into home automation to expand its sales of home computers. "It doesn't have to have the look and feel of the computer," says Elaine Lack, marketing director of IBM's consumer desktop group. Future IBM home-automation products could be melded into the decor, she adds.

For the moment, the company is pushing its Aptiva computer as its home-automation controller. Last year, the company began offering a $79 option to the Aptiva called Home Director. It's a kit, sold exclusively through Radio Shack, that includes Aptiva software, a special electrical plug for the machine, and two other electrical plugs that look like the light timers people plug in the wall. One is designed to handle a light and the other can handle a heavier-duty appliance.

The homeowner can plug in an appliance or light, and the software can turn them on or off and even dim the lights. The computer is sophisticated enough to calculate dawn and dusk for every day of the year, so it can turn on lights automatically when the sun goes down. Users can buy up to 256 plugs to control various devices.

The Aptiva can also turn itself on and off, so homeowners don't have to run their computers round-the-clock to automate their homes. In the late spring, IBM plans to bring out a voice-enabled version of Home Director, which will allow consumers to control the computer using voice commands.

Both the Thomson and IBM systems control lights and appliances by sending signals through the home's existing electrical system. This standard, known as X-10, is good for low-end applications, custom installers say. But it can't handle more sophisticated operations, such as piping music from a single compact-disc player throughout the house.

Various standards are proposed. Here at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show last week, the CEBus standard got the endorsement from a private-sector group wanting to push computer-based systems into the home. The group, known as the Home Plug and Play Task Force, includes large companies such as Honeywell, Intel, Microsoft, and Thomson. But privately, observers say that big consumer-electronics concerns such as Sony and Panasonic will have to push a standard before it becomes universally accepted.

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