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Life in the iPad

Dim the lights and adjust the A/C without moving an inch? Spin tunes and check security cameras from your chair? The remote-controlled house is only a click away.

March 15, 2007|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

ERICA SALISBURY doesn't like coming home to a shadowy cave at night, and now she doesn't have to. By clicking a mouse from any computer, anywhere, or by triggering a remote sensor, she can illuminate her house like a stadium before reaching the front door.

"The whole house lights up," says the very expectant Porter Ranch mother-to-be, who with husband Ben has made the leap to a digitally integrated home. "That's important for me because I don't like being in the dark."

The Salisburys aren't the only ones leaving the Dark Ages of knobs, dimmers and switches flipped by hand. Thanks to the burgeoning home automation business, couch potatoes can turn up the heat, turn down the AC, shut off an oven, check a security camera and scroll through their DVD or music library without moving a calf muscle. New technology even allows them to personalize these functions from wherever they happen to be via the Web or cellphone, ushering in the era of the house you can take with you. The iPad.

"It's definitely grown," Pat Hurley, tech analyst for Richmond, Va.-based consulting firm TeleChoice, says of the trend, citing the number of businesses entering the field.

"The digital home is absolutely happening," says Will West, chief executive of Control4, the Salt Lake City-based manufacturer of the Salisburys' system. "We can see it in the music we're listening to, we can see it in our televisions, and more devices coming online and into your home."

How does it work? Installers connect your house's electronic and digital devices to a command center, a hard drive that looks like a stereo receiver and can stream music, store movies and manipulate security cameras, among other functions. All can be activated by a remote control, wall keypad, off-site computer (via the Web) or cellphone.

"You don't have to run around to turn on music in each room and all the lights," says Jon Blanchard, who runs Vantage Studio, an audio-video and interior design company in Beverly Hills that installs home automation systems. "It's one button, and you're done."

THE dream of the smart home has teased the popular imagination for years -- sci-fi novels, "The Jetsons," the Clapper light switch of as-seen-on-TV fame ("Clap on! Clap off!"). But control-freak nirvana is finally attainable with new Wi-Fi technology that makes it affordable for someone other than a potentate or marquis in good standing.

Until recently, the price tag for home automation systems ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 and kept the industry stagnant, says Kurt Scherf, a market researcher at Dallas-based Parks Associates, which studies emerging technologies.

These days, a slew of companies such as Control4 are automating homes for $3,000 to $15,000. Best Buy has rolled out a $15,000 system called ConnectedLife.Home, which allows you to manage light switches, the thermostat and security cameras by remote control on a high-definition TV. Motorola's Homesight and AT&T's Remote Monitor allow you to view video, monitor door and window sensors or turn on lights from a Web-enabled phone.

No wonder the home automation business is expected to double in sales to nearly $6 billion in the next four years, according to Scherf.

For those already drowning in a flood of unread user manuals for digital devices, the prospect of a total tech home invasion may prompt plans for padded walls. Many of us, after all, would rather have a root canal than program our TiVos (or for true luddites, the VCRs). The biggest challenge of the smart home may be the dumb way user interfaces have been designed.

"Ease of use is still the major issue for most of the technology we write about," says industry analyst Hurley, coauthor of "Smart Homes for Dummies."

Usability was a prime concern at the Salisbury house. The couple had seen friends and family struggle with the complexity of expensive systems, so they wanted something affordable that they could use without a live-in Nobel laureate engineer.

In the living room of their new home in the hills north of the San Fernando Valley, Erica and Ben demonstrate their system with a single Control4 remote. If you mess up, the red "4" button takes you back to the main menu.

The opening screen looks decipherable enough -- a few icons float on the couple's 63-inch plasma TV screen -- Lights, Comfort, Videos, TV, Music. "Everything's right there," says Ben, who runs a real estate company. "I go to music, hit that. Then all the albums come up and I just pick one."

The media features will be familiar to anyone with an iPod. Ben can choose individual songs or highlight an album and start playing it. He can also build playlists. He clicks on an album cover, and the Goo Goo Dolls are instantly rocking the house. He can add other rooms in which he wants the music to play or have the sound rumble from all speakers.

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