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Building blocks for the smart home

Consumer electronics makers descend on a homebuilder show with a big bag of fancy--and pricey--tech treats.

SAN FRANCISCO--Would you spend up to $39,000 so you could control the air conditioning, lighting and television in your house without ever leaving the couch?

Technology companies like Sony, General Electric and USTec here at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference 2006 are betting that at least some people will.

Making a splash on the PCBC exhibit floor at the sprawling Moscone Center this week, home electronics makers were showing off all-in-one "smart home" systems that control climate, lighting, security and entertainment.

Homes of the future

For gearheads, the technology is undeniably cool. The GE Smart Connection Center, for example, is a prototype home automation system that can be controlled from a small, wall-mounted, color touch-screen pad. From there, a home owner can set the air temperature, create mood lighting, lock and unlock doors, access exterior security cameras, monitor a sleeping baby and crank tunes all over the house.

GE and the other companies are pitching these systems to home builders, who would include them in new houses just like they would plumbing or electrical wiring. But home builders here at the PCBC conference said the high-tech equipment is hardly the sort of thing home buyers list as a priority.

"We offer it as an option, but it's not built in," said Alan Dean, vice president of construction for D.R. Horton, a nationwide builder. "We might offer it in the future (as standard) when prices come down, or maybe in smaller pieces, like just the lighting or the A.C."

Greg Barker, vice president of Interactive Home in Livermore, Calif., plans to roll out the GE Smart Connection Center as the latest addition to his repertoire of low-voltage electronics gear for home builders in Northern California.

To date, Barker says, several homebuilders, including Lennar Homes in Danville, Calif., plan to offer the system in their newest developments. Home buyers can spend $1,200 to $1,800 per room for the GE gear, with a whole-house system running between $29,000 and $39,000.

However, because of the high price, some home builders say they've seen little demand for all-in-one systems.

"We don't offer it because of cost-effectiveness," said Kent Keith, director of purchasing for Landmark Communities in Reno, Nev. Though Landmark sells some homes for as high as $1.5 million, Keith says the company "rarely" sells smart home systems, even as an upgradable option.

If consumers were willing to spend, what they'd be getting would be considerable.

Using 5E and RG6 coaxial cables good for broadband signals, the Smart Connection Center, which is a 20-inch or 37-inch box, connects all the data, voice and video services for a home and distributes them to separate rooms via media outlets. The system works with FM radio, XM radio, and CD, DVD and MP3 players.

GE also offers a whole-house intercom and security system, complete with a liquid crystal flat-panel display. Users can see who's at the front door by viewing the camera activity over the Internet or television. They can also tack on a whole-house vacuum system for, presumably, keeping dust mites at bay.

The full system is scheduled to be available in the fall.

Sony's version of the all-in-one system is similarly priced, but focuses mostly on integrating home entertainment.

The top-of-the-line model, the Sony New Home Solution 3020, incorporates a 400-disc DVD changer and player, a 400-disc CD changer and player, a combination DVD recorder and VCR, a five-disc DVD player and an AM/FM tuner. All of that allows separate movies or music to be played in any of up to 13 rooms.

Sony is emphasizing the system's prepackaged nature. Previously programmed and prewired into a rack, the NHS is meant to be installed in a wall right out of the box.

The system can also be customized by adding two additional high-definition sources, such as HD cable or satellite, and a Blu-ray Disc player. A security camera can also be added.

Targeted for semicustom and custom homes selling for $750,000 and above, NHS models can cost anywhere between $10,000 and $40,000 for whole-house systems.

"Ten to 15 percent of homes come with audio/video included," said Neal Manowitz, director of marketing for Sony consumer systems and applications. "We want to expand on that."

USTec, a privately held company based in Victor, N.Y., also had an all-in-one digital media device at the show, this one using Apple Computer's FireWire to distribute up to 16 streams of data to flow simultaneously.

Requiring only a single high-speed, Category 5 cable, the TecStream allows one home to have an entire network built around the idea of streaming HD content. For a three-room setup, the TecStream costs between $3,500 and $5,000.

A cheaper option is Channel Vision's pop-out iPod wall dock, which can hold and charge all iPod models except the Shuffle. At $220 to $275 per station, the gadgets let one iPod distribute music to the whole house.

While the popularity of the flashy home electronics gear may be limited by its price, Landmark Communities' Peterson said the slowing housing market might be the most to blame.

"Builders won't throw this in as a standard in a soft market," Peterson said. "Everything needs to be perceived as an advantage--as what they need, not just what they want."