Let There Be Automation

Forget the future; let's look at what you can do today

In the future, you'll be able to display images from the front-door camera on any TV in the house, or from a remote location by using the Internet. Someday you'll be able to call your vacation home from the road to rev up the heater. Imagine pressing the Entertainment button on a keypad to activate the whole-house audio system, start a flame in the fireplace, and turn on all the lights in your home.

Get real! You can do all this stuff today. In fact, you could have done most of it a decade ago, if you had a computer at home and an Internet connection—neither of which most citizens possessed. The truth is, "home automation" predated the proliferation of PCs and IP addresses by more than a decade. For that matter, home automation existed before CDs, DVDs, and Caller ID.

In the 1980s, you could press the AWAY button on your alarm system to automatically arm security, set back the thermostat, and trigger the lights to turn on and off randomly to simulate a lived-in look. But you couldn't network two PCs in the home because you didn't have two PCs.

Things You Can Do Today

So what can you do today? One of my favorite systems on the market is BeAtHome from a new company with the same name. While dozens of manufacturers and service providers are hyping their own versions of "the only affordable system that lets consumers monitor and control their home from any Web browser in the world," BeAtHome is one of the few companies to actually deliver.

Instead of developing new communications platforms and building hardware from scratch, BeAtHome integrates brand-name, off-the-shelf products into a reliable piece of hardware that constitutes the home server. BeAtHome provides the software—a Web-enabled platform that lets users do everything from remotely controlling lights and a thermostat, to organizing WebCam photos into an album, to synching and sharing Microsoft Outlook calendars (which is no small feat).

Most of the components are wireless, thanks to radio frequency (RF) technology from Interlogix (a leader in wireless security) and to power line communications from X10.com. A useful feature is a barcode scanner that captures UPC codes of products that you need to shop for before you throw out the last can of pop or unwrap the last ream of paper for the printer. The egg-shaped scanner holds up to 500 UPC codes, which are uploaded to the MyBeAtHome site when the scanner is seated in its "shell." You can print a shopping list, but BeAtHome is working with select supermarkets to automate the shopping process. BeAtHome sells its product (starting at $899 for a complete system) through professional installers. Monthly service fees start at $20.

Often mentioned in the same breath as BeAtHome is Xanboo, whose product is nothing like BeAtHome's. Xanboo's founders own a subcontract manufacturing company in China, so low-cost production is a corporate strength. The core product is a communications hub that connects to a PC's USB port. You can hardwire up to four Xanboo Web cameras to the hub (no wireless connection exists yet) for remote viewing over any Web browser, and you can tie up to eight RF sensors into the system. Today, Xanboo ships three sensors—acoustic, door and window, and water sensors—but the company promises more varieties in the future to monitor such things as temperature, power on and off, and even swimming-pool pH levels.

Unfortunately, the Xanboo communications hub has no outgoing control capabilities (X10, RF, or otherwise), so it can't trigger events such as turning on lights or sounding an alarm. However, future versions of the product promise 2-way RF and X10 support for devices such as thermostats, electronic door locks, and garage-door openers.

A Xanboo starter kit comprising a hub, color video camera, and software lists for $180 but sells for as little as $149 at several retail and online stores. The street price for the RF sensors is a petty $20. Monthly service fees start at $9.95.

Giving Credit Where Credit's Due

BeAtHome and Xanboo are two of the newcomers, but let's give credit to the granddaddies of home automation that have quietly shipped home-automation systems through niche catalogs since the 1980s. JDS Technologies is one of them. In business for nearly two decades, JDS has evolved its hardware and software with the times.

The company's hallmark STARGATE system is powerful enough to be used by professional integrators for the most complicated installations, but affordable enough for the hardy do-it-yourselfer. For about $1500, you can configure a system to do just about anything. There's the usual stuff such as turning lights on and off based on time of day or on an event such as Vacation; setting up schedules for the sprinklers, which can be overridden by a recent rain shower or preempted by an outdoor dinner party; and muting the TV or stereo automatically when the phone rings.

But STARGATE does much more. With STARGATE, you can use your existing universal remote control to adjust the thermostat, close the drapes, or dim the lights. You can program the full-featured telephony system to identify callers and announce them through your audio system's loudspeakers ("Julie's Mom is calling"); or better yet, you can automatically route certain callers (not Mom, of course) to voicemail. And you can make STARGATE the master of your audiovisual system, automatically pausing a movie when the doorbell rings and displaying the visitor's image on the big screen.

With all its capabilities, STARGATE is not for beginners. Neophytes might have better luck with Advanced Quonset Technology, whose Home Control Assistant (HCA) provides perhaps the most user-friendly programming environment for home control. Software wizards walk the user through their homes, room by room, to assemble a list of required peripherals, which HCA explains how to install.

Based on the bill of materials, the software helps novice programmers design a home-control system that rivals their professionally installed counterparts. The software ($89) is optimized for controllers from Marrick, which sells compatible hardware for as little as $49.

Spend a few hundred dollars more, and you can have a similar system that offers complete voice control. Home Automated Living's (HAL's) HAL2000 lets users query the computer ("What's on television at 3:00?"), then tell the system to "Record Oprah."

And the list goes on. So forget this nonsense about the future, and start rigging your home to wake you up to NPR and a hot cup of coffee.

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