When mortgage broker Doug Burton arrives at his sleek Hollywood home, the house knows exactly what to do.
A small laser beam lets Burton know when he's pulled his car far enough into the garage, and a light indicates whether the alarm system has been tripped since he left. As he enters the house, which appeared in the Steve Martin film Shopgirl, lights automatically switch on along his path, from the kitchen, to the hallway, to the master bedroom, and all the way to the closet, where he heads to change his clothes.
He doesn't need stop to fiddle with the stereo system on the way; his favorite music automatically begins to play. And if the phone rings, the music automatically mutes so a female voice can say, if appropriate, "Your mother is calling from her cellphone."
In the digital era, products have a way of creeping into our homes month by month, whether we like it or not. DVD players, iPods, high-definition televisions--what was once the household computer is now several systems that need to be networked together, and preferably without wires.
That is particularly true for the most luxurious residences. It is no longer enough to have marble-clad bathrooms, a kitchen full of custom appliances, and foot-wide carved moldings. Now, you need a home theater that puts real cinemas to shame, flat-screen televisions that slide from view at the click of a button, and audio systems containing thousands of songs that can be instantly accessed from any room in the house.
Homes can be equipped with automation systems that integrate control of the lighting, computer and audiovisual equipment, home security and monitoring systems, and things we don't generally think of as electronics, like door locks and drapes. And these smart houses are not all recently built mansions.
"We took a brownstone that was built in the 1860s, and we added and we added more technology," says Robert Saltzman, the owner of a 5,500-square-foot Philadelphia home that has central controls for lights, temperature and security (including the glass-break sensors and cameras that can see in the dark), and a networked video and audio system. "Perhaps we went a little crazy."
Everything plugged into the network can usually be run from touchscreen panels in the walls (and can be concealed so as not to clash with the French château-style décor) as well as remote controls. Many can be monitored or controlled long-distance, via a secure connection through a laptop or even a cellphone. Is someone at the door at your estate in San Diego? A motion detector alerts you and sends a real-time video feed so you can answer the intercom from your hotel room in Hong Kong.
"Our top-of-the-line customers are professionals with an attitude of independence and self-reliance," says Jay McLellan, president of New Orleans-based equipment manufacturer Home Automation. "They enjoy the ability to monitor and control their home while traveling, and the practical aspects of convenience and conservation in a large home."
But it takes more than just enthusiasm for gadgets to play in the world of the most high-tech homes. A top-notch home automation system can cost more than $100,000. Super home-theater setups can run close to $1 million.
"In really high-end, the sky's the limit, especially for home theater," says McLellan. "But the experience is beyond anything you'll find in a commercial theater."
However, much as central air-conditioning, dishwashers and electric garage doors were impossibly expensive novelties to home owners of the 1930s, home automation is a technology that has a future in the middle-class home. You don't have be as rich or as smart as Bill Gates--whose Medina, Wash., compound features an underwater music system for the swimming pool and a 22-foot-wide video display--to have a high-tech house. Less expensive, do-it-yourself technologies, such as Xanboo and Insteon from Irvine, Calif.-based SmartLabs, work over power lines or home wireless networks, and are bringing costs down and making installation easier.
"Historically, the ultra-wired home has been limited to the wealthy who typically spend upwards of $20,000 for a basic system, or technologists who like to tinker with older technologies," says Joe Dada, founder of SmartLabs. "But with advances in technology, creating the ultra-wired home is much less complex, making it affordable for all consumers."
In other words, someday home theaters may be what
once-rare air-conditioning has become--cool, and within just
about everyone's reach.
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