Home pilot

Paranoia gets played up at a Seattle conference and at a futuristic housing development in Renton.

FOR THOSE OF US on the sunny side of the "digital divide," here's good news: Plenty of companies are looking to make our lives even more technologically superior to the rest of humankind.

At the fifth annual "Connections" conference on "home networking," held earlier this month at the Convention Center in Seattle, hundreds of tech companies came together to find ways of selling still more futuristic services to families who may already have state-of-the-art broadband and multiple PCs. Forget about mere computer ownership and dial-up Internet access: These guys are all about high-speed, Web-enabled home security systems, up-to-the-minute traffic summaries displayed next to your garage door, and teleconferencing with your next-door neighbors. Conference participants even topped off their week with a little field trip to Renton, where a new housing development is putting some of these home networking ideas into practice.

The basic objective is to bring the same kind of connectivity that people have in their offices—like shared networks and intranets—to the home and neighborhood, while also expanding that connectivity beyond the PC to other home appliances and systems, like lighting and climate control. Among the near-term goals discussed at the conference were enabling, say, music streamed from the Internet to be played over your stereo in another room, or creating a two-way TV set-top box for video-on-demand.

The paradox underlying home networking is that while getting data to your computer from a Web site that's halfway around the world is no problem, sending data from your living room to your breakfast nook is. And there are literally dozens of competing technical standards and strategies. Bootstrapping their agendas at this month's conference was a host of disparate industry coalitions—the Internet Home Alliance, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, the Home Phoneline Network—each promoting some favored combination of telephone jacks, coaxial cable, utility power lines, or in-home wireless transmission.

SEVERAL COMPANIES are trying to carve out a place for new Net-connected, non-PC devices that could migrate from the den and take up residence in living rooms and kitchens (consult those online recipes!). The goal is to "penetrate the highest-traffic areas of the home, where the technology will get used for different activities than the PC," said David Armitage, of Colorado-based Qubit Technology, during a panel discussion on "Information Appliances." Armitage's company makes so-called Web pads—portable devices like an oversized Etch A Sketch used for accessing the Net.

As with any high-tech scheme in its infancy, the focus of the home networking business, for now, is on the coveted "early adopters"—those tech-savvy, gadget-hungry consumers who are " relatively price insensitive and extraordinarily demanding," as Armitage put it (in other words, people very much like those attending the conference). The key opportunity, Armitage said, echoing many other speakers, would be in helping these on-the-go techies "schedule and manage their busy lives." As Leo Shulman, the CEO of software-maker Vicinium Systems, noted: "We're getting busier and busier!"

We are also, apparently, getting increasingly obsessed with the threat of burglars, untrustworthy baby-sitters, and violent climactic events—or so these companies seem to believe.

Armitage, for example, suggested that the home alarm keypad could be a promising new technological "gateway," since it's an interactive device that we already pause at upon entering and exiting our homes—all us early adopters anyway. He envisioned integrating some kind of a Web-enabled display, so that homeowners could take a quick check of the weather and traffic before climbing into their SUVs.

Likewise, the field trip to the Eastside also showcased a high-tech system that emphasizes security. At the handsome new Sundance development in the hills above Renton, homeowners will be able, if they so desire, to monitor every door, room, and lighting fixture in the house—whether from thousands of miles away or from their living room couch.

SUNDANCE, WHICH is still under construction, is a joint project of Seattle developer Specialized Homes and Bay Area company Vicinium. The homes are modest by current Eastside standards: Instead of sprawling chⴥaux, Sundance offers a more compact and stylish New Urbanism, with homes for sale in the $340,000-$390,000 range. Unlike such fantasy islands as the Microsoft Home—which is located inside a conference center—the "model home" at Sundance is real and going to be sold. (The yard full of roosters a few blocks away is real as well. This is a "transitional" part of Renton.) So Sundance is limited to technology that's available today—but it is impressively automated nonetheless.

A Vicinium executive demonstrated how a leak in your kitchen pipes, detected by a moisture sensor installed under the sink, could automatically trigger a call to your cell phone, which would display the household emergency icon. You could then, via the Internet, remotely program your home security system to create a unique one-time entry code for the plumber.

The system is supposed to be simple enough that anyone can use it, not just the high-tech elite. "We don't want complexity," said Vicinium's Shulman, "just something you can use today." To that end, the system is centered, like so much of the home networking effort, on everybody's favorite household appliance: the TV.

Using an interactive display that appears on your television, Vicinium's software allows viewers to see and control lighting and temperature settings all over the house, check up on the nanny downstairs, screen visitors at the front door, as well as be instantly alerted to any neighborhood break-ins (assuming your neighbor uses an alarm system connected to the network). But don't worry: You can also disable the alerts if you're watching Felicity.

"It's about peace of mind and notification, not just controlling devices," said Vicinium executive Ilya German.

In addition, said German, "you can use Internet information to trigger events inside the house." For example, if there's some kind of weather emergency, like a tornado, the system can be programmed to turn on the lights and wake you.

Vicinium is Latin for "neighborhood," and company executives plan to create a neighborhood intranet where Sundance residents can look out for one another, share community notices, and even "pool purchasing power," according to Shulman. He observed that, so far, the Internet has mostly fostered far-flung digital communities, rather than local ones.

The Sundance community has been slow in coming, however. Last year, when the project was announced, the developer said 18 residences would be up and selling by November. But only a handful of homes have been completed. Shulman says the economic downturn, and the announced Boeing departure, have slowed the project.

Perhaps demand would be more pressing if the system could alert your cell phone when there's a really good break-in happening on COPS?


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