Sophisticated home management systems have been available for years to commercial-grade installers and high-net-worth homeowners. However, the degree to which the systems are integrated within the home – as well as the complexity and cost – have kept them out of reach for most homeowners. Now, the winds of change have leaped the chasm. Today’s fully integrated home management systems bridge legacy serial home and A/V controllers with rapidly emerging IP-based home networks and broadband world networks. As is often the case in evolving technology, we also see this trend in systems that cost less but offer more than previous systems.

Homeowners today are seeking convenient, time-saving, and value-added applications and services that enhance and simplify their lifestyles. As they watch movies, tour showcase homes, read magazine ads about “automation,” they are becoming educated about the benefits of whole-home management. What does this mean to the industry? Whether your focus is entertainment, security, remote access, or all of the above, we owe it to homeowners to deliver high-quality, reliable, integrated, and interoperable solutions focusing on the human interface and benefits rather than the technological features.

That point is so important, it deserves repeating. Solutions will not reach the average homeowner without serious consideration about how humans will interact with the systems and how the solutions are presented as a benefit to their lives. There exists an entire discipline on this notion, Human Factors. Probably 90% of the technology I have seen has not incorporated this “last inch” design concept, yet in talking daily with integrators, builders, and homeowners, I’ve come to believe everyone in our industry should.

The convergence of several key trends, some not specific to the home control market, is affecting decisions to buy or retrofit existing houses for home management. Shifts in markets often take place when successful solutions are applied horizontally across industries. That appears to be happening today in the home control market. It includes shifts in device reliability, interoperability, and potential for future services.

1. The ubiquity of broadband, always-on connections allows spontaneous access to network content and connections that take full advantage of the useful features in a home system. The network could be a community intranet, video on demand from a service provider, commuter cameras, weather, or the morning world news with “fresh content.” Further benefits of broadband include remote access to home management, fast access to content and online services, and provider access. And future-proofing home systems must be a concern for our industry: when consumers buy new electronic consumer products, they understandably demand to know, “What is the life expectancy of this new gadget?” Broadband is a partial answer to that challenge because it connects the home network to the world network, thus expanding the value of the both.

Look for systems that leverage the backbone of the home data utility…the Internet.

2. The reliability of embedded, non-PC platforms that have no hard drives or fans and are purposed appliances for a specific task. Generally, these systems cannot be tinkered with by anyone other than the installer or service provider. For all its benefits, the open architecture of a PC is an inconvenient home interface, creates a support nightmare, and adds a level of complexity that is unsuitable for mass application or even mission-critical functions like security management. The alternative is a factory pre-programmed platform, ideally with semi- or fully customizable interfaces for specific uses or systems. These devices will leverage embedded operating systems like Linux and they can, if correctly designed, unite disparate systems and drive convenience to users.

When specifying a home system make sure you get the convenience, customization (if available), and enduring performance you deserve.

3. Rapid emergence of the IP-based network within the home, wired or wireless. The network of choice in commercial environments is now installed in a third of new homes today, made possible by emergence of the 802.11b wireless networks, HPNA, and powerline networking. Hosts of devices have become available for the media center, the bedside table, and high-traffic points in the home for convenient access to home control.

Home network systems today readily connect to peripherals around the house; including media systems, networked cameras, control panels/systems, and interface platforms, yielding a truly friendly and convenient connected home environment.

What should homeowners look for in a system for their homes today and tomorrow?

Look for solutions, not systems; benefits, not features; and installers, manufacturers, and service providers who understand homeowners’ needs, have knowledgeable and trained staff, and offer insightful, innovative designs based on standards. Why? For future-proofing and ease of installation – and thus integration. The impending collision of the A/V market/PC/home networking/broadband provisioning opportunities is real, and real close. Creating systems that adapt easily to this exciting union will offer many rewards to everyone in the food chain. Look for open architecture solutions that future-proof systems through remote updates and services and interoperability with like-minded solutions.

* Home Networking -The builder touts it, so buy it, roll it into the mortgage, and make sure you wire the media centers, interface locations, and cameras. Insist on a qualified CAT5 installation. For retrofits, consider HPNA or wireless networks. Components are migrating to Ethernet access/control and distributed media over Ethernet. Proprietary, closed systems will suffer from this move toward more interoperability and ease of integration leveraging the network.
* Structured Cabling Center – This is essential for centralized access to all wiring and home systems. The benefit is apparent: you can easily add new modules, integrate more home systems, or maintain the system from a central location. One key example is remote access to the home coordinated from a broadband router, a home low-voltage lighting control panel, and perhaps the network hub, all ideally located within a cabling center.
* Security and Home Control – It cost much more to add a control panel in the cabling center that can manage HVAC, energy settings, lighting, and appliances. Most systems come with advanced features like macros and “scenes” for linking events. Lighting can be a key component for a security system, with flashing porch or entire systems when an alert is issued so police can easily identify a problem.
* Media Control – There are cost and convenience benefits to installing a single stereo system and distributing the audio or video signal around the home with cabling managed centrally and ideally accessible from Ethernet-based interfaces. Controlling the media center from anywhere is possible today either with keypads or interfaces that display content such as album/artist or perhaps even playing the music video or offering similar albums you could buy or download immediately for a party.
* Entertainment – Yep, this feature points back to the Internet utility. The gaming system is yet another part of homes today. So is surfing, and interactive TV is right around the corner. Is your home ready? Video- on-demand, time-shifting programs allow users to bring entertainment back on their terms, when and where they want it – and potentially without commercial interruption.

Content is also entertainment. Fresh content in the virtual sense can be available anywhere in the home with the right interface. Leveraging digital content like weather actually competes with the TV in context, speed, and granular accuracy…down to the Zip code level!

Commerce is entertainment, too (for teenagers, at least). Spontaneity on touchable interfaces affords both the merchant and the user benefits that were not available before now, especially with the interactivity of the TV medium.

* Communication – Not many of us believe this can be part of an integrated home, but intra-home, in the community, and in a networked environment, users can benefit from integrated phones, intercoms, and cameras. Think of how your family interacts with friends and family, or seeks and requests services like IM from your integrated home.
* Premise security, monitoring – In today’s world we can have simple and convenient access to data, sensors, and more useful cameras that tell us about our environment or our commute, at home or out of town. With the event driven features of an integrated home, you can receive a call or an email or log in and check the status of your home from Paris. You can even shut off water, turn on vacation lights or shut the garage door from afar. Beyond that, we can instantly record an “event” and broadcast it to owners in distant places. Leveraging both networks we can view in-home cams or Interstate traffic cams before we step out the door. Scrolling through a couple might shave 30 minutes or more on a commute. Accidents are reported in real time, not helicopter-to-top-of-the-hour-it’s-too-late-I’m-stuck news.
* Interfaces to all of the above – You wouldn’t waste a $10,000 or a $200,000 installation expecting users to control the volume in their home theaters through a PC in the study. So the interface to the integrated home must add value and convenience, offer adjunct mobile platforms, and be as graphically interesting as possible via a host of other services. This integrated functionality will bring users back to the interface time and time again. Above all, the interface must connect to networks, home, and the world. It’s how we live our lives.
* Future proofed? – You bet! Ask about the extensibility of the systems you are buying and installing. Are they upgradable, updatable, and customizable, and can the digital interface be changed when the room color scheme is changed?

How can we ensure interoperability?

Interoperability can be ensured through open standards and reliable integrators that install and set up your home systems. Make sure you understand it before you buy it. Insist on a demo in the showroom and ask questions. Take your family, sit with them, and listen to their questions. Do they understand the system? Can everyone use the features without a manual?

Here’s a rule of thumb: If you need a keyboard to run the system, you’re in trouble. Preparing your tax return is a task-oriented application that’s perfect for a PC. But turning on the lights should be as simple as…turning on the lights.