Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore

Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore

Summary: Built-to-order home automation systems that handle lighting, climate control, and security are old hat in multimillion-dollar custom homes behind the gates of swank country clubs. But the next generation of home automation systems are built around off-the-shelf parts using the Windows Media Center interface, adding audio and video to the mix. The kicker? Consumer electronics giant Best Buy is getting into the business, at a price that's right at home in upscale suburban neighborhoods.

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TOPICS: Hardware
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CES is a study in incongruities. Today, for instance, I visited the NextGen Home Experience booth, which packs something like $100,000 worth of wiring and high-end digital media and home automation equipment into a mobile home worth a fraction of all that gear.

The mobile home, of course, is a concession to the realities of trade show life. In reality, you'd be more likely to find this sort of system in a multi-million-dollar custom home behind the gates of some swank country club. Built-to-order systems that handle lighting, climate control, and security are nothing new. What makes this one different is that it's built around the Windows Media Center interface.

The 2200-square-foot demo house has an impressive array of equipment on the back end.

NextGen Home Server Rack

The rack includes a high-speed switch that connects to the structured wiring system, plus a Russound multi-zone audio distribution system and three Lifeware components at the bottom of the rack: a controller running Windows XP embedded, a media acquisition component running Windows XP Professional, and a 1.5TB Windows-based storage server.

The concept house sports touch-screen panels and HDTV displays in every room, all interconnected and all running Windows Vista. The Lifeware software plugs in to the Media Center interface, adding a My Home choice to the menu and offering activity-based controls on a room-by-room basis.

Lifeware Home interface

It isn't just computers and AV components in the mix, either. The system controls lighting and the position of window shades when you want to watch TV. The home also includes some new LG appliances set to debut in 2007. The refrigerator has a touch screen panel and the washer/dryer combo communicates its status to the rest of the network; when the dryer cycle is completed, a message pops up on TV and PC screens reminding you to go fold clothes before they wrinkle.

The demo house wasn't glitch-free. In the living room, the NextGen rep showing off the Lifeware Home interface had to reboot the HP system in the living room when it hung while trying to switch to the My Home menu.

What I found more impressive, though, was the house next door. (Actually, in keeping with the mobile home theme, it was an RV.) Inside was a scaled-down version of the pricey system next door, with a plasma TV, a Media Center server and extender, a wireless N access point and gigabit router, an assortment of smart switches, and a digital thermostat.

Unlike the custom system, this one costs a flat $14,999, installed, with a year's worth of support. The kicker? It's from Best Buy's Business division, which is selling the system under the ConnectedLife.Home brand. That price point takes this type of system out of the snooty country club environment and brings it into reach of upscale suburban neighborhoods. According to Best Buy VP David Hemler, 188 California homeowners have already beta-tested the precursor of this product, and the results were good enough to roll out the product nationwide.

Because it uses the Media Center interface and off-the-shelf parts, this system doesn't require expensive custom programming, and the wireless network means it can be retrofitted into existing homes without slicing walls open. And it can be expanded relatively easily; if you can install your own switch or controller, a tech can add it to the system remotely, using remote-access software based on Citrix' GoToMyPC. Having Best Buy's marketing muscle behind high-end Media Center installations means this sort of home automation setup has a chance to move beyond the super-geeks and super-rich.

Topic: Hardware

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8 comments
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  • ... No ... Way ... ... F-a-s-c-i-n-a-t-i-n-g!!!

    WOW! I would ... (gasp) LOVE ... to have a home automation Windows-automated system!!!

    I feel like doing this when I get out of college. My main goal is to be a game developer. But I do have so many short-time goals like computer programming (via Microsoft's C#/VB.net), use Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, administrate Windows Longhorn Server, etc.

    I am totally dedicated to Microsoft!

    Having Windows-automated washer/dryer machine, Windows-automated stove/convection oven (I'd love to control an oven via C#!), etc.

    Note: Please don't flame me. I won't accept anyone bashing my comments for the Talkback. Thank you.
    Grayson Peddie
  • Locked out the house by XP

    Seriously, would you trust your house control and security to Microsoft?
    I can imaging coming home at 1:00 am on a snowy night, putting the key in the door and the system freezes.
    So I stand out in the cold while my house reboots, then get the 'You are running an illegal copy of Windows...' message and that's it... I join the homeless as my house no longer recognises me.
    With my negative experience of Windows PC's and Windows Mobile PDA's there is MO WAY I would put my house under Microsoft's control.
    Steve*1*
    • RE: Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore

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  • "Honey, the house crashed again!"

    I can hardly wait for a house where everything runs on Windows.

    The TV will look like Maxx Headroom, while the soundtrack keeps going, letting you hear the suspenseful climax a minute before you see that there was any suspense in the first place.

    The phone will drop calls more often than a Nextel cellular, so you'll have three people outside the door -- the fresh-air fiend, the smoker and the guy trying to make travel plans (and now the whole neighborhood knows when the house will be vacant).

    The burglar alarm will randomly trip, bringing the police just in time to hear that suspenseful end to the TV show. When a real burglar comes in and steals all the stuff, a box will pop up on the screen: "ALARM SETUP, please close all other programs and press 'Next.'" Of course, you won't see it, because he took the monitor, too.

    Burnt offerings from the toaster and oven, because the moving bar stopped one increment before the end.

    The fridge will blow up, because the compressor can't handle all the startrunstop, startrunstop disk-swap cycles, but that's okay, the food spoiled when the "Virtual Memory Low" message popped up.

    Nobody will be quite sure WHY the doorbell rings at random times, and Microsoft support will suggest that you send it back to the dealer.

    The garage door opener will turn your minivan into a convertible.

    You will learn to be VERY careful before getting in the shower.

    You will get used to finding crumbs of laundry soap on your clothing after washing it. Your dryer only starts after a 5-minute "integrity check," because the time before it "stopped unexpectedly" (someone opened the door to take out a towel for you when the water turned to ice halfway through your shower and you had to go reboot the water heater).

    Oh, yeah, I can hardly wait for Windows to "connect" my house!!!
    critic-at-arms
    • ROTFLOL

      I usually skip over the bashing posts,(from all sides),,but this one is funny!! Give you a 9, maybe even a 9.2
      perryroyce9
  • The Title Is A Joke

    "Connected homes aren?t just for the super-rich"?
    "costs a flat $14,999"?

    My 3-bedroom home on a huge lot cost me less than that years ago.
    Now this is real progress!

    Accepting the license is equivalant to paying a gaurd to live with you and watch that you do everything he says and don't do anything he tells you not to do. You must also give him the power to strip-search and x-ray at his discretion. If you don't toe the line, he can shut you down. And besides that, if he has a bad day or gets irritated he can slap you around a little bit, and if he needs a "little?" money, he can make you pay him AGAIN (WGA).

    Sounds like it's for either the "super rich" or the "super stupid", take your pick. Aint no room for middle ground.
    Ole Man
    • And I was thinking....

      ....that $2000 was about 3 times more than I'd be willing to pay for a television, of any size or thickness. Now it seems I'll have to pay $15,000 as well.
      tic swayback
  • RE: Connected homes aren't just for the super-rich anymore

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