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A threshold for wireless home gadgets

The Petaluma, Calif.-based company is developing a set of devices that include front-door Web cams, motion sensors and light controls that can talk wirelessly to the PC.

Wireless devices and controller from Threshold. Stefanie Olsen/CNET Networks

Setting up a wireless network of home-security gadgets can be a pricey venture. So a California company hopes to produce a line of low-cost gear for home automation that might appeal to the Sears and Wal-Mart set.

Petaluma, Calif.-based Threshold, a privately held company founded three and a half years ago by a former Nokia GM, is developing a set of gadgets that include front-door Webcams, motion sensors, and light controls that can talk wirelessly to a control device and the PC. The system will let people automate tasks like timing interior lights, monitoring the front door while on vacation, or keeping track of their energy footprint.

Threshold plans to release its products sometime later this year, but the company gave CNET a preview of the gear late last week. (Pictured above.) The design of the gadgets leaves little to be desired, but the products could prove useful to people caring for elderly parents or trying to watch out for home intruders.

Threshold is known in the home-automation industry for developing OneNet, an open-source protocol for wireless networking in residents or small businesses. The company designed the open-source protocol in early 2007 as a low-cost alternative to proprietary wireless standards like Z-Wave or Insteon; and since then, it's been adopted by chip makers such as Texas Instruments.

But OneNet was a stepping stone for Threshold. It developed the protocol so that it could ultimately make small, low-cost devices that would run on the specification. The chip set for OneNet, according to Threshold CEO James Martin, can be made for between $1 to $2 and includes a wireless range of 300 feet indoors. In contrast, Martin said, Zensys chip set costs an estimated $2 and has a wireless range of 80 feet in the home. The chip set for the industrial wireless standard ZigBee costs as much as $7.

"We needed something low cost, with better security, and supported by a bunch of chip guys," said Martin, who left Nokia in 2004.

As a next step in Martin's vision, Threshold recently came out with an automatic device-configuration system called ConfigSpot, which works in conjunction with its upcoming products. The technology lets buyers of Threshold gadgets add a new device to the home network without reading a user's manual or running any software. ConfigSpot appears as a blue dot on top of the devices; and people need only to literally connect the dots--so they're touching--in order for the new device to be automatically installed and configured with security settings.

Threshold will eventually start by selling a home controller, or a wireless base station and application server that can control all the various Threshold devices in people's homes. The controller, which has a Linux-based computer inside, will sell for around $300, according to Martin. Once they buy the controller, customers can log to a personalized Threshold Web site to create settings for their home controller and related devices.

Devices will include a power controller to control lights and monitor energy output (about $30); a clock radio with MP3 player and LCD video monitor (about $200); a full-motion Web camera for monitoring front and back doors (about $100); and motion sensors that can track movement or environmental temperatures (about $30).

Martin said that once the products are available, he plans to sell a starter kit for around $500 that might include the controller, a Webcam and door sensors.

Martin is realistic that his products aren't groundbreaking, but he said that they are lower cost and easier to use than the competition. "Anything we do today is already done, but it's not going to be a $300 thing, it'll be a $5,000 thing," he said.

The company is funded by Martin along with a few other seed investors, including wineries such as DLM Wines. Martin said that he expects to raise a series A round of financing this summer.