Technology: Boosting Your Home's IQ

Manufacturers agree on standards for creating the smart house

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The twelve-room house that Baseball Hall of Famer Willie McCovey built for himself in the foothills of Woodside, Calif., is as rangy as the 6-ft. 4-in. former slugger. But McCovey's home is not just big; it also has brains. A central computer links reading lights, kitchen appliances, thermostats and burglar alarms. Heating and air conditioning can be programmed to go on in one room but not another. Sprinklers buried in the lawn start up automatically -- and know enough to shut themselves off when it rains. A robot sweeper cleans the surface of a swimming pool, while infrared beams and motion detectors scan the property, guarding McCovey's irreplaceable collection of batting trophies whether he is at home or away. "What I like about it," says McCovey, "is you can just set it and forget it."

McCovey's smart home is more than a celebrity's novelty item. It is part of a fast-growing industry: home automation. The business has been booming for several years in Japan and is catching on among manufacturers in Europe and the U.S. Their goal: to do for the rest of the house what remote controls did for the family TV and VCR. "People are used to sitting in a chair and making things happen across the room," says Roger Dooley, publisher of Electronic House magazine. "The idea of turning lights and appliances on and off automatically is beginning to seem like a necessity."

Home automation took a major step forward last week, when the Electronic Industries Association/Consumer Electronics Group -- a trade organization that includes such giants as Sony, Panasonic, Philips, Tandy, Mitsubishi and RCA -- unveiled a new wiring standard called the Consumer Electronics Bus, or CEBus. CEBus will enable microprocessor-equipped appliances built by one company to communicate with those built by any other. In the first public demonstration, at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, enthusiastic manufacturers showed off a prototype CEBus-controlled home of the future packed with high-tech features. When a telephone rings in a CEBus home, the stereo automatically lowers its volume. As someone walks into a room, the lights go on. If a visitor pushes the doorbell, his or her face is displayed on a TV in the living room. Commuters unable to reach home in time to cook dinner can set the oven timer by calling home and pushing buttons on the telephone.

At the heart of all such homes is a small computer that can link any number of kitchen appliances, security devices, and TV and stereo components. That computer can receive signals from telephones, hand-held controllers or touch- sensitive video screens. One tap on the screen of a typical system brings up a schematic diagram of the house. Another tap produces a display of the air temperature in every room. By selecting from a series of menu choices, the homeowner can tell the house to heat the bedrooms to a comfy 72 degrees F while leaving the rest of the rooms at an energy-saving 65 degrees. Or a family can order the air conditioning turned off while they are out of town and restarted three hours before they are due home. Once instructions have been recorded, the system automatically controls the flow of hot and cold air by means of motorized dampers installed in the ductwork behind the walls.

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