House with an IQ

Low-cost microchips and big companies are making it cheaper for Americans to keep up with the Jetsons.

When Jeff Anderson's dog hears a car drive up the driveway, Maggie doesn't bark or look out the window. She trots to the TV to see who's there.

Maggie's behavior is the product of future and present intersecting in Mr. Anderson's fully automated home. With small TV security cameras aimed at the driveway, and voice activation announcing in the house that "there's a car in the driveway," forget traditional barking. A smart dog in a smart home learns to check out the TV monitor.

"This stuff can be a load of fun," says Mr. Anderson, who is editor of Home Automator Magazine published out of his house in Mebane, N.C.

"This stuff" refers to all the electronic systems readily available in today's market to transform almost any house into a Jetsons-like futuristic home, one that literally listens to your commands and talks back, politely, of course. Thanks to the falling costs of embedded microchips in many electronic devices, the homes once found only on covers of Popular Science are now sprouting in the suburbs of middle-class America.

A burgeoning number of "do it yourselfers," and high-end technophiles in the United States, are buying and combining components such as sensors, remote controls, monitors, computers, timers, wireless switches, motion detectors and cameras. The goal: greater convenience, security, and energy savings in and around their homes.

"The industry is about to change," says Ken Kerr, president of the Home Automation Association, "because IBM, AMP, Lucent Technologies, and Microsoft are about to jump into this, and they have big advertising budgets."

Initially riding the coattails of the home-entertainment revolution, the automated home is now an industry generating about $2 billion in sales annually and will reach an estimated $27 billion by 2005.

Wired for tomorrow

More and more new homes are being wired for a future of multiple options. Park Associates, a Dallas-based research firm, reports that at the end of 1997 nearly 13 percent of new homes had built-in intelligent controllers (a master control panel) ready for use. By 2005 the figure should climb to 26 percent.

"But right now in your home you can do things from mild to wild" with existing technology, says Anderson.

For example, for only $69.95 you can buy a "remote mini-blind tilter" from Home Automation Systems, that enables you to open and close window blinds while lying in bed or seated on your living room sofa.

A Honeywell Home Control system, available at Sears and Costco, sells for $499. Connect it to your home computer, and automatically turn off or on up to 240 lights, or appliances through out the house. Sensors can be added to detect intruders or call you at work if your child doesn't come home at the expected time.

Using a Time Commander Plus (JDS Technologies, 800-983-5537), one homeowner rigged a communication system that calls him at work or on his car phone if somebody rings his doorbell at home. Through a speaker by the front door he can talk over the phone from his car to the person at the door.

"What you can do is only limited by your imagination and not just your budget," says Mr. Kerr, "Today you can walk in your TV room," he says, "and say, 'Lights on, 30 percent dim, draperies close, TV on, channel 6, volume up, popcorn popper on.' "

Cost? Around $2,000 to do the above and other wizardry. "But if you have a computer, you can do the same thing for around $250," says Kerr, "and press one button that sends out a signal to do all of it."

Even more possibilities are coming with the flow of information going in and out of homes via computers hooked to the Internet. "By 2002, we'll have 1,500 satellites in the sky which will allow you to move any kind of information anywhere, and do it cheaply on broadband," says John Petersen, president of The Arlington Institute, a think tank focused on the future in Arlington, Va.

Home offices are helping drive this automation. Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International in Falls Church, Va., recently built a house near a lake in Virginia. He had a $5,000 automated smart system installed that took four days to program.

"We have three air-conditioning units, one for each floor," he says, "and each room is controlled separately and programmed."

All the lights are turned on and off remotely. From his armchair, he can turn three gas fireplaces on or off, or change music in any room. His home office has it all - control panel, computer, fax, several phone lines, conference TV, and entertainment center. "E-mail is the greatest thing going," he says. "Everything I wanted is now in one place here, and it's a feeling of calm and a safe haven."

Automated energy savings

When using automation to regulate house lights, the water heater and to pull the blinds, some energy conservation does occur. "It's not uncommon to save 40 percent on an electric bill," says Anderson if homes use demand controllers.

These devices act like traffic cops keeping an eye on loads and regulating the flow of electricity to the water heater, clothes dryer, baseboard heating, and appliances.

Lori Marsh, an extension specialist for the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, reports that the Energy Sentry, a demand controller manufactured by Brayden Automation of Fort Collins, Colo., was used in some 2,300 homes in Virginia. Each household gained an average annual savings of $600.

"But in all candor," says Kerr, "this is not what is driving the industry now. It's convenience, security, and comfort."

Peter Bishop, a professor for Studies of the Future at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in Texas, agrees. "Security systems are pretty much standard and will stay that way," he says, "but not as intrusive as before. In the distant future there will be biometric identification such as voice or iris print so you don't have to rush in your house and punch in four numbers to keep the police from thinking you are a burglar."

What appears to be the likely scenario in the future, says Neil Scott, chief engineer of the Archimedes Project at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., is a balancing act between a smart house and semismart appliances.

"The house will be the infrastructure to welcome smart appliances and allow each to interact with each other," he says.

Your refrigerator, for example, could monitor itself, know your culinary preferences, and advise you when you need milk, eggs, or Cherry Garcia ice cream.

"The opposite of this is to bring in dumb appliances and have the house tell them what to do. The whole myth that we are into with offices and PCs hinges on a changing operating system. Half the stuff becomes obsolete and everybody has to go out and buy new stuff," he says.

As technological advances continue, the appliances in your home will be less and less seen as add-on features and become integrated with the house. The house of tomorrow will become increasingly "conscious" of itself and you.

Conversations with your house

"Yes, the house will talk," says George Burliarello, editor of Technology and Science magazine, and chancellor of Polytechnic University in New York. "Because there will be many more sensors in the house," he says, "it will say, 'I have this problem,' maybe a structural problem, or maybe a leak in the basement, and it [will tell you]."

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers envision a ring for your finger that detects body temperature and then "talks" to the heating or cooling system in your house. As you enter the front door on a winter's day, your personal preference for just the right amount of warmth will greet you.

But what happens when a power surge, or a burst water pipe short circuits a complex mass of control panels, and the smart house is suddenly unable to even mumble? "You always have manual control," says Kerr, which means you'll have to go around flipping on light switches - if you can remember where they are.


Home Automation Systems Inc.

17171 Daimier St.

Irvine, CA 92614


Home Controls Inc.

7626 Miramar Rd.

San Diego, CA 92126


Advanced Services Inc.

32 Court St.

Plymouth, MA 02361


HomeTech Solutions

10570 S.De Anza Blvd. Cupertino, CA. 95014


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