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

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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