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Automated 'Smart' House Still a Dream : Common Electronic Language to Link Appliances Would Open the Door to High-Tech Living

November 02, 1987|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

Your children like their rooms warm and cozy. You like a brisk environment.

No problem. Your home's thermostat can be programmed to deliver the exact level of heating or cooling desired in each room.

You're on the freeway when you realize the coffee pot is still on. But, instead of frantically rushing back, you call and tell your home management controller to cut off the juice to the coffee pot.

At the end of a rough day, all you can think about is soaking in a hot bath. It's easy. When you reach your freeway exit, call your bath tub--if you have an electronic tub, you probably have a cellular phone--and tell it to be full of 103-degree water by your 7 p.m. arrival.

The house that can take care of itself, as well as its occupants, has been a gleam in the eye of futurists and science fiction writers for decades. But although the above examples of what a "smart" house can do are real and available today, the truly automated, electronic house is still more dream and gleam than bricks and mortar.

"It's still a question more of potential than actuality," said Christopher Jackson of the Yankee Group, a Boston high-tech market analysis company. "It's still at least five to 10 years into the future."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle blocking full-scale development and sales of smart household devices is the lack of a commonly accepted electronic language uniting the various appliances and systems.

Common languages, or formats, are essential to mass technology. Electrical wiring comes in AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) varieties. Videocassette recorders are available in VHS or Beta tape formats. Even personal computers, one of the youngest industries around, are already grouped around the software program MS-DOS and "all others."

French Versus Spanish

But home automation system makers have yet to agree on uniform communication standards. And, as a result, virtually all home automation systems offer only one-way communication: from the central controller or household "brain" to the individual appliances, such as the self-filling bath tub. And the level of communication is limited to basic on/off commands.

Two-way communication--when the tub tells the controller that it is broken and can't fill itself--isn't available unless the controller speaks the same electronic language as the appliances it wants to talk to.

Manufacturers have been reluctant to make smart devices for fear that they might invest heavily in appliances that speak the electronic equivalent of French when the common standard might turn out to be Spanish. However, industry insiders, who have been predicting an imminent solution for several years, remain hopeful that 1988 will finally produce a standard.

Meanwhile, about half a dozen companies throughout the country have taken the lead and developed fully integrated home automation systems that link four key elements of home life: security, energy management, entertainment and telecommunications.

Currently, the link typically comes from an extra set of wires that a ties a central controller with a variety of sensors and electrical outlets throughout the house. Telephone communication is handled via digital signals that are initially sent through the central controller and then through the wires to the appropriate outlet.

In the future, researchers say, the link will be handled by a common bundle of cords--including telephone, electrical, cable TV and security wires--that run throughout the house.

Although this future smart house will be wired similarly to a conventional one, the key difference is that smart wiring puts every cord from the bundle at every outlet, enabling any appliance, whether cable television, telephone or hair dryer, to be plugged into any outlet. The smart outlet would interpret which appliance is plugged in and would feed the appropriate current, whether electrical, telephone or cable signal. In addition, computerized appliances plugged into these outlets will be able to communicate over telephone lines with each other.

The latest entrant into the home automation field is Mitsubishi Corp., the Japanese giant whose technological and marketing abilities are expected to breathe new life into the slow-growing market. According to Electronic House, a 2-year-old magazine tracking home automation, sales of electronic devices hit $360 million last year, 12.5% higher than the year before.

The most obvious advance offered by the Mitsubishi system, which is still undergoing final testing before its official market release, is its price. At $10,000 for a top-of-the-line configuration, which is about 25% to 50% lower than prevailing prices, Mitsubishi is following the price-slashing precedent set by earlier Japanese consumer electronics makers.

Still, the Mitsubishi system, like its predecessors, is basically an elaborate security, entertainment control and energy management operation.

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