Tech companies prepare for digital home

Conference showcases automated blind closers and light dimmers, but will consumers finally embrace the technology? Photos: Digital Home Conference

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Some of the gadgetry spoofed on "The Jetsons" doesn't seem that far-fetched anymore.

Home-network technology was on display here Thursday at Connections: The Digital Home Conference and Showcase, where automated controls for home appliances were all the rage. Manually turning on lights, adjusting thermostats or rolling up blinds could be things of the past if consumers open their homes to tech companies. Thus far, however, consumers appear unconvinced that they need this kind of help.

The public has been slow to embrace the conveniences that a wired home is supposed to offer. In the past, expense and the predominance of wiz-bang technology that offered few solutions to real-world problems hampered the industry, analysts noted. But that hasn't stopped numerous companies from placing big bets on digital tools for the home.

The strategy now appears to be attracting customers by offering inexpensive devices and services that really do make life easier.

"People have discovered how much easier their lives can be with just a wireless laptop," said Laurie Watkins, a spokeswoman for chipmaker Pulse-Link. "They're now wanting whole-home connectivity."

Echelon, a San Jose, Calif.-based pioneer in control networks, wants to connect even the most basic appliances to home networks. The company demonstrated how its Neuron chipset can be inserted in a carpet and programmed to communicate with light switches, automated blind controls, security systems and home entertainment centers. This would allow, for example, lights to be dimmed, blinds to be pulled down and air-conditioning turned up anytime someone walked over a designated area within a living room.

The company's tiny transceivers send signals over any AC or DC power circuit. That allows networks to be installed without rewiring a home or business, according to Rich Blomseth, an Echelon product manager. The transceivers work with a multitude of devices, including heating and cooling systems, meters, irrigation applications and security cameras.

Photos: Digital Home Conference

"We make it possible for ordinary household devices to talk to each other," Blomseth said. "Echelon has always been about cost control and efficiency. These kinds of systems make people more efficient."

Another application allows homeowners to receive a text message on their cell phone anytime someone approaches their safe or walks into their study, Blomseth said.

Echelon has teamed up with software company Nearmedia to offer the technology.

To illustrate the effectiveness of the application, Jim Hunter, Nearmedia's chief technology officer, stood on the floor of the Santa Clara Convention Center and remotely dimmed the lights of his Florida home with his Treo 700 smart phone. He watched the room go dark via a Webcam mounted in the room, which transmitted pictures to a Web browser on the cell phone.

Aided by the same technology, homeowners can use their PCs to receive real-time updates on how much electricity their homes are using, as well as how much money it's costing them.

Mass adoption of the technology, however, will require establishing standards. Right now three different energy-efficient wireless communications protocols are vying for supremacy. Around 20 to 30 products are on the market that use the Insteon protocol. Mostly, Insteon is used in lighting. Zensys, meanwhile, heads up the Z-Wave alliance, which has attracted Intel, Cisco Systems and others. Around 100 products, mostly lights and temperature controllers, have built in the protocol. Thirdly, there is the Zigbee protocol, promoted by Philips.

No digital home would be complete without its own surveillance system. WiLife, headquartered in Draper, Utah, sells digital surveillance equipment.

The security system features cameras that transmit video to a home PC. From there the video is sent to a secure Web address where a user can access the feed from any Web-enabled device.

Users can watch video feeds from six separate digital cameras, said Mark Fredrickson, the company's spokesman. Vacationers can monitor their homes from the beach and, while at home, business owners can keep an eye on employees.

"We encode the information directly to the Windows Media format," Fredrickson said. "That's different from some of our competitors. Ours is true video and not just a bunch of (JPEG images) stitched together."

Also in the surveillance realm: Competitor iControl, which has developed home security cameras that send a warning to you at your office, and has begun to roll out its products.

Elsewhere at the conference, companies focused on expanding high-definition video applications. Pulse-Link, headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif., says it has developed a networking chipset designed to be included in video gear such as set-top boxes, DVD players and home theater centers. The technology enables high-definition video to be transmitted via existing cable and wireless systems to any video device in the home equipped with the chipset.

"We have the ability to handle multiple streams of high definition simultaneously," said Bruce Watkins, Pulse-Link's president.

Products incorporating the chipset likely won't be on store shelves until next year.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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