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All you want to know about smart homes
Arati Menon Carroll | September 23, 2006
In May this year, telecommunications giant Siemens unveiled its Smart Home services in Asia. With these services one can turn on central heating from the office PC, use mobile phones to set a digital video recorder to record a rerun of Friends and even monitor visitors at home on PDA. Smoke detectors can be sending warning SMSs and you could also do video conferencing with your doctors.
In other words, Siemens' integrated home solutions conjured up visions of future homes, where household appliances perform like a practised cast of actors. No, this is not a corny sci-fi movie from the seventies; these are real gadgets communicating with each other through already existing technology.
Suddenly, everybody wants the 21st century digital home equipped with a plug-and-play infrastructure of communication, entertainment, security and climate control products.
Television funny man Conan O'Brien once joked that his house suffers from low self esteem because he tells it that it is an idiot, quite unlike the "smart" home like so many others these days.
What is a smart home? "Smart" or "intelligent" homes offer a comprehensive integrated network of all devices inside and outside of the house that can be operated using a uniform operation interface that can be run on various types of devices, including a PDA, PC or a TV screen.
Siemens' offers it's integrated communication, entertainment and security solution over broadband lines, but since available broadband bandwidth is far from ideal, it might be a while away.
However, other technology providers and system integrators have jumped onto the intelligent house bandwagon and are providing similar technology through conventional electrical cabling.
Exisiting power line communication is used to connect the electrical features in a home so that they "communicate" with each other through a digital control unit that's hooked up to a small wall display panel.
Innovative, a security and automation systems integrator, claims its smart home system that costs anywhere from Rs 1.5-3 lakh (Rs 150,000 to Rs 300,000) has already found fascination predominantly among high-end developers.
"Very few end-users are purchasing this technology so far," says a company spokesperson. He adds that clients can choose levels of communication that fit their budget; for example, you could choose only visitor monitoring devices and temperature control. "As requirements expand, it is simple to add to or modify the installation," he says.
When Abhisheck Lodha, a developer, was planning Lodha Bellissimo, his luxury residential undertaking, he chose to outfit each flat with home control systems by Clipsal Schneider. It cost him over Rs 10 lakh (Rs 1 million) per flat. Lodha is glad he made the investment.
"Purchasers have loved the fact that their homes have such a unique solution, without having the hassles of identifying, installing and servicing it themselves."
He adds, "In terms of living and housing options, the industry in India is far behind its counterparts abroad in terms of finishes, technology and luxury -- a gap which has to be fulfilled as our economy develops and consumers seek the same standards as the best internationally."
Home automation systems are not a one-size-fits-all. Legrand, for example offers a range of off-the-shelf individual components, that start from Rs 25,000, like the scene controller which has pre-programmed combinations of light, temperature, curtains and other mood settings.
They also, however, have an integrated solution called In One. It uses a plug and play device that houses a website and allows you to command your home through any web browser. So turn on your microwave from your PDA, as you are alerted of the arrival of your kids from school.
Pearson technologies, the only Indian end-to-end player in this spectrum, also offers GenX Home, that connects the entire system to the Internet, enabling the owner to access their home gateway from anywhere in the world.
"It's simple enough for a child to use," says Raj Maniyar, director Pearson Technologies. If there's a security breach or gas leak, there's an immediate pop-up on your Web browser. The system also allows for live messaging from PC to a door phone, so you can tell a visitor at your front door that you're away for a week.
GenX Home costs from Rs 1.8 lakh (Rs 180,000) up to Rs 15 lakh (Rs 1.5 million) for the premium version with full Internet connectivity. "Cost will never be an issue," says Maniyar," Indians are awash with funds, and this is such an assertion of lifestyle."
A significant part of these home networking solutions is about meeting the increasing need for security, combining features like toxic gas detection, intrusion alarm systems and CCTVs. The other component of it is to enable energy conservation -- time delay switches and automatic detection sensors turn lights off when you step out of home.
The third part, of course, is the pure entertainment of it all; you can whip up quite a performance for enthralled house guests. "It's upto you to decide at which point the functionality stops and gives way to gimmicks," says Benoit Lecuyer, MD, Legrand India.
Is complete control a myth? Seems not. Bill Gates' (estimated) $97 million, 66,000 sq ft smart house is reportedly a wired-to-the-extreme "home of the future". Urban legend goes that even the 140-year-old maple tree in his driveway is monitored electronically all day and gets just the right amount of water automatically delivered.
The master bathtub can be filled to the right temperature and depth by Gates as he drives home from work. And if he wishes, his current favourite music will follow him through the house -- even to the bottom of the pool.
Okay, so not all of us can do everything that Gates does, but smart homes are certainly no longer just a plaything of the super wealthy. The technology elements exist, and just as they do for all consumer electronic products, the prices to smarten up your home can only get more affordable.