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All Wired Up

With the 'CyberHome,' a Developer Wants to Make Everything From Calling 911 to Collecting Recipes a Mouse Click Away

July 23, 1996|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One man's version of the house of the (near) future is sitting modestly in a new development in Chino Hills, a gray split-level wearing a sign that says "CyberHome." Despite its conventional exterior, the computer-ready model home provides a showcase for living with the trendiest technology available today, from an oversize TV/computer monitor to a trim videoconferencing system.

"This is a consciousness raiser," said Sandy Sigal, CEO of Burbank-based West Venture Homes, a large-scale developer who is emphasizing technology to set his company apart. Though Sigal is breaking ranks with the mass-market building industry, he gets high marks from the Home Automation Assn., a group attempting to educate both consumers and builders about technology. The four-bedroom demonstration model, located at 16313 Vista Court, is a joint project for West Venture and Computer Life magazine.

"It shows the real possibilities--everything in the house is off the shelf," said Maggie Canon, editor of the San Francisco-based magazine, whose staff shopped for the $40,000 worth of computers, printers, software and gadgets for the model home. "We wanted to demonstrate how things work in context with a house--for instance, how a wireless keyboard can give you mobility."

West Venture first went online with a World Wide Web site offering sales information of its 15 tract developments. Next it added an e-mail loan application service. Having gotten good response to computerized shopping services, Sigal's next step was to update the house itself, bridging the parallel universes of home and technology.

"Right now you buy a computer and bring home a big box with a monitor and keyboard. Where are you going to put it? It has to go on top of a table or desk." Then, he notes, everything has to plug into something, producing the tangle of coils, cords, boxes and surge protectors that nests under most computers.

His CyberHome was built with upgraded wiring throughout linking computers within the house to each other and to the Internet. There are multiple phone and data jacks, wiring in place to hook a home satellite dish to the TV and for surround-sound speakers to be plugged into the media center and conduits for fiber optic cable.

A new technology called CEBus connects all electrical appliances equipped with CEBus chips to a computer, which can do everything from turning on the lights in the evening to dialing 911 if a smoke alarm is activated. Installing such a system during construction is relatively inexpensive, Sigal said, estimating a maximum of $1,000 per house. It would be much harder and costlier to do later, he added.

Both Sigal and Canon are convinced that home buyers are increasingly computer-savvy. And, while they don't expect that visitors will want to buy everything, they see the CyberHome as an exercise in possibility thinking.

With more than 50 computers, gadgets and software programs, the house supports high-tech activity in almost every room. In the kitchen, a Compaq Presario computer and flat monitor enable family members to leave electronic post-its, telephone messages, check the month's calendar and call up more than 1,000 recipes or Better Homes and Garden Kitchen online.

The family room is dominated by the Destination from Gateway 2000, the first computer/TV combination; viewers can play a CD-ROM game on its 31-inch screen, then switch to Monday night football without budging. "I think people will spend more time together--there are new games that are more stimulating and more educational than TV," said Sigal.

In the upstairs hallway, a communal art center for creative projects, posters, fliers or homework is equipped with a Macintosh, a Kodak digital zoom camera for scanning photos, computerized Wacom Art Pad and Epson's color printer. To Sigal, the real wave of the future is the home office with its Intel ProShareVideoconferencing System 200. The usual workplace trio of computer, printer and fax is blended into one unit, the Brother MFC-4500ML. A Hewlett-Packard personal organizer tracks appointments, organizes addresses and takes notes.

Since all 87 homes in the Chino Hills development will be pre-wired, home buyers can choose any tech package that appeals to them, or none at all. Sigal has no idea of what the reception will be for the homes, priced from $199,999 to $234,999. "At this level we haven't found anyone else doing this," he said. "Maybe some upper-end builders are."

At the National Assn. of Home Builders in Washington, Gopal Ahluwalia, director of research, applauds Sigal's marketing skills but doubts that technology is a priority for today's home buyers. "The first requirement is extra space," he said. "Then people want fancier kitchens and bathrooms and fireplace. No one is asking for technology."

However, Susan Ritter, marketing director for the Smart House automation system in Maryland, says, "He should be a model for the industry. Houses being built today need to be pre-wired for the information superhighway, so they won't become obsolete."

Sigal's next step, he said, would be to use all the wired houses in a development for a "virtual community," utilizing a central computer to provide community-wide bulletin boards for, say, lost pets or finding a tennis partner.

The Chino Hills demonstration home is open 1 to 6 p.m. daily. For information: (800) 61-HOMES or http://www.westventure.com. Computer Life's July issue featuring the CyberHome is online at http://www.computerlife.com.

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