Smart-Home Systems Go Mainstream


Read the Full Article on New York Times by Farhad Manjoo


I suspect that our species has been longing for “smart homes” since prehistoric times. John Q. Caveman is in one corner of his cave, about to retire after a long day of gathering (he’s never been the hunting type), and suddenly, a needling worry becomes lodged in his mind: Did he put out the fire in front of the cave? He vaguely remembers doing so, but what if he’s thinking of last night, not tonight?

Millennia later, we are caught in the same fix. Do you drag yourself out of bed and down two flights of stairs to check if you turned off the space heater in the basement?

Home automation was supposed to have solved this. For decades, technology companies and futurist magazines have teased us with visions of houses in which the lighting, temperature, TV and audio system could be controlled from a central unit. You are supposed to be able to check on that basement heater while staying snug under the blanket. 

The good news is that the prices on that other route to a smart home, customized systems installed by professionals, are slowly starting to fall. Some upper-middle-class people may already be able to afford a professionally designed setup that controls at least a complete entertainment system, or maybe one that controls a few items, like the TV, the lights, the thermostat, the door locks and, say, the coffee maker, while others may be able to afford them soon. 

To illustrate Mr. Pedigo’s point, and to give me a taste of what less-affluent homeowners might be able to enjoy in coming years, Mr. Stearns took me to a sprawling house in the Bay Area suburb of Atherton, where his firm had installed an extensive home-automation system. It included more than a dozen televisions, among them a 103-inch screen in a dedicated home cinema, as well as a whole-home audio system, with speakers mounted invisibly in the ceiling. There was also an integrated lighting and climate-control system, so that the family could, say, keep tabs on the temperature in the wine cellar while working out in the home gym, on the other side of the property.

Here is where the story gets back to the rest of us: This family commands its princely system, which cost $400,000 to design and install, from something as simple as an iPad (or, in this case, any of the seven iPads conveniently located in various parts of the house). Before the advent of touch-screen phones and tablets, Mr. Stearns said, he would have used custom-made controllers for this automated system — and those devices cost several thousand dollars each. But the iPad controller costs $499, a big savings. And because the iPad can be customized with different apps, it can be made to control lots of companies’ systems. 

Recently, Sigma Designs, a company that makes a home-automation technology linking many gadgets, announced that it had made its systems compatible with “smart meters” that utilities countrywide are rolling out to customers. This development may enable you to program your appliances to turn on and off according to the price of electricity. Your dishwasher, for instance, could turn on when it notices electrical rates have dropped. Such advances are likely to be installed in the fanciest homes first. But as prices fall, it might not be too long before, finally, we are all in control of every corner of our caves.