<Sharon Knolle | Writing Portfolio | Seattle Magazine
Sharon Knolle Entertainment Writer

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Get Smart

Smart homes offer the house of the future today

Published in Seattle magazine, October 1998

"Open the garage door, HAL." In Stanley Kubrick's film 2001 - A Space Odyssey, the super-computer HAL didn't always obey voice commands. Now, however, a real-world HAL will do as it's told: from feeding the cat, turning on the lights, or, yes, opening the pod bay, er, garage door.

Home Automation Systems, Inc. of Irvine, California (800-762-7846 or smarthome.com) offers a "HAL 2000" voice recognition home control for $399 in its product catalog and on its Web site. It's just one of the ways homeowners can rig up their house Jetsons-style.

"People are becoming aware of the convenience factor of 'smart homes,"' says Ken Drake of AVS Home Systems of Lynnwood (206-325-0161), which designs and installs custom home wiring systems. "As you leave your house, you can push one button or key in one sequence of numbers and set your alarm, your lighting sequence, your heating or other parts of your home, instead of walking around the house asking yourself, 'Gee, did I turn the lights off? Did I shut the garage door?"'

Upgraded wiring may have started as a way to enhance telecommuting and entertainment options by delivering high-speed Internet access or digital cable to your home. Now, however, developers are pushing the envelope of how you can control your house in ways previously found only in sci-fi films.

What makes a home "smart" is primarily a new standard of wiring that allows homeowners to control their appliances and electronic devices from a central point. New, high-quality wiring is "hard-wired" into the walls, or modular inserts can be used to enhance a home's existing wiring. Once installed, either type of system can be controlled using telephones, computers, modems, keypads, touch screens and wireless remotes or — in the case of the HAL 2000 — voice commands.

Of course, unlike its film counterpart, this HAL isn't a form of artificial intelligence: It must be programmed before it can respond to your voice and to know which vocal commands correspond to which device and actions. To distinguish between a command and everyday conversation, HAL requires a trigger or codeword, which could be "HAL," "computer" or any word you wish.

"When you say, for example, 'Computer, it's movietime,' it will run a program that shuts the drapes, lowers the screen, starts the VCR, and turns off the lights," explains Alan Sherin, director of creative services for Home Automation Systems. "Likewise, when the movie is over it could run a reverse command sequence." You could also add steps such as switching your phone to voicemail it you don't want to be interrupted during "movietime."

These kinds of control systems allow for the ultimate in security scenarios, energy savings and overall customization. For example, lights can be programmed to give the appearance that someone's home when you're away — the house can even call with a status report or inform its owner if there's been a break-in. "You can pick up the phone and if you have all of the systems running through that wiring, you can turn on your home — the lights, the music or the security alarm — from your car phone or from your office," explains Jay Lippman of Bennett Homes of Bellevue (425-646-4022).

With the right setup, you can individually configure each room in your house. One way to do that is with full-house audio, "The audio can be multi-source, which means you can have one stereo system and have speakers in each room and, thanks to a special six-channel amplifier, each room can actually play something different at the same time," says Drake. So Mom and Dad can swing with Sinatra in the living room, while their teenage son grooves to the Beastie Boys In his room and sis spins some Spice Girls. Other popular high-tech setups include full-house fighting, security, even setting up a computer in each room to create a LAN (local area network) — in other words, whole home packages.

Home theaters are another reason to, smart-wire your home. A basic home theater starts at around $4,000 and requires a number of components, including a 27-inch or larger television, a movie-playing device, such as VCR, DVD or laser disc player, speakers and a surround-sound-capable stereo receiver.

Encouraging the idea that your home will function more like a PC, Michael Avery of Smart Systems Supply of North Bend (888-831-5933) says, "We're moving into a time when actual plug and play will be a reality in the home. You'll just get the right device and plug it in, whether it's a baby monitor, door camera, home network or lighting control package."

As builders and developers see the need to stay on the cutting edge of home technology, new "wired" developments are springing up: from the downtown 13-story condo The Concord, described as the "ultimate urban cocoon," to upscale developments by Bennett Homes in Issaquah and Heritage Communities in Everett. The Concord, a 224-unit, twin tower development in Belltown, not only provides luxuries such as a wet bar, and spa, but high-tech advances such as high-speed DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) for blazingly fast Internet access, and a choice of service providers: DIRECTV, TCI Cablevision or SUMMIT Cablevision.

The demand for smart homes in western Washington seems to be matching the supply. The Concord project, with units ranging from $150,000 to $650,000, was 70 percent pre-sold at presstime, thanks to its high-tech options and the virtual reality walk-throughs that allowed potential buyers to preview individual units with a variety of interior design scenarios. Housing developments near Microsoft go quickly and, as one would imagine, newer homes in this high-tech hub are getting smarter — some with up to $30,000 in smart enhancements, says Lippman of Bennett Homes. One client spent that amount just setting up custom temperature controls for his saltwater fish tank.

One cost-saving measure to consider is hanging onto that older, less powerful PC, "Rather than trashing it, use it to handle your home automation," suggests Sherin of Home Automation, Systems. "It should be more than capable of handling the software to control your home. For example, to heat up the Jacuzzi in the evening or have coffee brewing in the morning."

Interest in wired homes can only increase as more people start working from home. Currently, more than 11 million people telecommute, with the number expected to grow, in part due to the Clean Air Act and Trip Reduction Act, which require employers to enact commuting and telecommuting policies for their employees. This growing contingent of telecommuters will certainly demand the same level of quality, high-speed, high-band-width Internet access available to businesses. Drake predicts, "Smart home technology is going to move into the mainstream."

Avery of Smart Systems Supply also sees considerable growth in the smart home market. "I introduced this some six years ago and builders thought I was nuts," he recalls. "Now I get calls every day from home owners, builders, architects." He adds, "The whole idea is to have it be a seamless part of the way you live. Technology for technology's sake isn't a desirable goal. It's got to make your life easier." — Sharon Knolle

Future-proof Your Home

Even if you're not in the market for a pre-wired, state-of-the-art new home or condo, it's relatively easy and inexpensive to smarten up your current home.

"It's called future-proofing," says Michael Avery of Smart Systems Supply. "Just upgrade what you already have and make it more current. Houses that don't have this will be obsolete. They just won't have the same value that a house with comparable square footage would have."

"A basic upgrade usually involves a smart cable that combines data, phone and communications abilities and has two sources of video," says Ken Drake of AVS Home Systems. AVS offers two "smart" retrofit options that require no new wiring, beginning at $2,500.

Sean Cunningham is getting the most out of his smart-home upgrade. He and his wife recently purchased an older home in Mount Baker and installed a smart system called Stargate, which comes with a big "wow" factor as well as down-to-earth practicality. For example, there's a telephone interface that can deal with those annoying telemarketers. "When salespeople call, you can dial *## and the controller will give them a long and laborious speech on how we don't accept sales calls," Cunningham says happily. "It also tracks when the phone rings — there's speakers throughout the house — and it will say, "Sean's calling" or whoever it is." Motion sensors even turn on and off the lights as you move through the house (the lights can also be controlled by a keychain remote).

Cunningham has his sights set on more customization. "There are all kinds of things we'd like to do: There's a way to hook up the garage door opener so that as you approach the house it recognizes that you're in the right car, it opens the garage door, lights the entry path, that kind of thing. Once you have the controller and the wiring in place, it's really easy to add those kinds of things." — S.K.

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