Home IQ


Someday, we may be getting fashion advice from our mirrors

Instead of digging through our closets to find the perfect complement for a new shirt, we may hold it up to our bedroom mirror for a computer to scan. Using radio-frequency identification technology, our electronic fashion stylist will then offer suggestions based on what's in our closet or how the latest edition of Vogue or Teen Beat pairs up something similar.

"The technology required to do it is pretty much available today," said Jonathan Cluts, director of strategic prototyping at Microsoft. The feature can be seen in action at a Microsoft concept home in Redmond, Wash., and a variation is in a new prototype home in Disneyland.

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That's not to say that everyone will want it.

And that hints at a major theme we'll see as more and more technology gets woven into our homes, experts say. Our personal preferences and needs will dictate what technology we have to have, what we want and what we'll take a pass on.

First things first: To get most of these home innovations, the places in which we live will be networked, allowing all the computers and electronics inside to communicate.

Technology is already on the market that can make this happen.

With a digitally networked home, people can manage all their music and movie files on a media server so they can be heard or watched in any connected room. We can also control all our lights, our thermostat and even our window blinds with a touch of a button. Movies can be downloaded from the Internet and watched immediately on our big-screen televisions.

Wired-home technology is getting more affordable for the average homeowner, too.

"Ten years ago, this was the domain of the rich," said Jason Leonardelli, director of international projects for LifeWare, which sells home automation software. Increased use of wireless technology and standardization in the industry have changed that, he said.

Some of the first home automation systems to hit the market were priced at $35,000 to $45,000, said Tedd Benson, founder of Walpole, N.H.-based Bensonwood Homes. Today, similar systems might cost $2,500, he added.

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Only recently has the idea of the fully-connected digital home begun to appear both practical and affordable.

But just because the price of home automation has come down, it doesn't mean people are snapping it up, pointed out Kent Larson, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's House_n research group, which explores how new technologies, materials and strategies for design can develop dynamic and evolving places. Visit the site.

For home technologies to become more popular, consumers will need to see definite practicality in the applications, he said. In other words, Americans probably "don't want to sit in front of the computer to turn the lights on," Larson said.

That said, "there are huge opportunities using the same technology to do useful things, like saving energy or keeping people healthy longer," he added. The goal of home technology, he said, should be to make people smarter -- not to make their homes smarter.

Applications That Count

Energy-saving home technologies are going beyond the programmable thermostat. Already, there are systems on the market that allow homeowners to adjust heating and cooling settings remotely, using a computer or a cell phone.

"The real big player right now is energy efficiency," often not the novelty of being able to turn a home's lights on and off from one location, said Leonardelli.

The home can be programmed so that if the security system is disarmed, the system can turn on the lights, he said. On the flip side, if the system is armed -- signaling that the homeowner is leaving -- the system could be set so that the lights are turned off. With that set up, lights aren't mistakenly left on when people leave the house.

GPS-enabled cell phones may someday signal when we're getting close to home, a sign to turn up the heat or turn on the kitchen light while it unlocks the door. Or we may monitor energy consumption in a home just as we would in a Prius, Benson said.

That's saying nothing of all the green building technologies that are creating zero-energy homes or, even better, homes that actually make more energy than they consume.

As much as a priority it is for people to save energy, aging in place innovations also could prove extremely helpful as baby boomers get older, those in the industry say.

New technologies will help people delay institutionalization and allow them to live independently for a longer time, said Majd Alwan, director of the Washington-based Center for Aging Services Technologies. That's important because the need for caregiving will rise as boomers move into their golden years; at the same time, the cost of care is going up, he said. Visit the site.

Wearable fall detectors are on the market already, and researchers are working on floor sensors that can tell if a person has fallen, he said. These sensors can distinguish when a person hits the floor and when it's some other object that has fallen.

In the future, motion sensors may look for patterns of normal activity and report deviations if movement isn't sensed for a certain period of time, he added. And some applications could read the vital signs of a resident, which an offsite nurse can monitor. When a homeowner leaves the house, sensors on their walkers also can monitor those vitals, he said.

With home systems like these, family members may be more comfortable when their elderly loved ones live on their own, Alwan said. Oftentimes, seniors move into a nursing home because their family "is worried about the health and well being of loved ones, but do not have enough information to give them peace of mind," he said.

Add-Ons We May Want

That isn't to say some techies won't want a computer to offer recipes based on food items placed on the counter, a concept incorporated into the new Disneyland home. In the kitchen of the future, appliances also can talk with each other, and a virtual bulletin board keeps the schedules of all family members in one calendar application.

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Microsoft technology and Disney imagination combine to create a mirror that offers fashion advice.

In the living room, an interactive touch screen may take the place of the coffee table book, displaying content from the family's library. Digital pictures on the walls and music piping through a room can be changed, based on the preferences of who is occupying the space.

It's not unusual for those who tour the concept home to be overwhelmed, Cluts said. But most actual homes won't likely incorporate each element, either, he added.

"We get asked, 'what's the killer app for the home?' The answer varies," Cluts said. Take the example of the recipe finder, he said. "If I'm a gourmet cook and I know what to make with chicken and mushrooms, or I only eat out, I never will buy that for my home."

And it's still too early to know which ideas will gain consumer acceptance, he added.

One idea that Microsoft experimented with in past years was the idea of offering movies on demand, now a concept that has taken off. But when the company worked on an iris scan for keyless entry, there wasn't as much acceptance, he said.

"Consumers hated it," he said. Even though the light that shines on the eye is harmless and the biometric entry system is more secure than a fingerprint-based one, "they didn't like the idea of having their eyes scanned," Cluts said.

The Importance of Cost

As the price of basic home automation systems comes down and the technology is becoming more dependable, the feature is becoming more popular, Leonardelli said. He thinks it soon could become a must have: "Once it becomes more common and you have a home and live with this, you're not going to want to not have it," he said.

That gets at another essential component of home technologies: the importance of cost and how the investment pays off over time.

According to a National Association of Home Builders survey of architects, designers and builders released last year, 78% said the average new home will likely have a programmable thermostat by the year 2015. Sixty-one percent said that the average new home will have a structured wiring system by then, and 59% said it will have a multiline phone system. Multi-zone controlled HVAC systems and remote controlled fireplaces were next on the list.

On the other end of the list, only a small percentage of professionals surveyed thought that window covering controls, sensor-operated faucets and electronic shower and bath systems would become standard in new homes by 2015, even though more thought that these features would be standard in upscale homes by then.

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"Things that provide real money and saving for the average household" are those that often win a place in the average home, said Rose Quint, assistant staff vice president for survey research at NAHB. "Money is the deciding factor here," she said.

Indeed, practicality is important, and the biggest challenge smart home proponents have had over the years is the misperception that technology could somehow turn our homes into something straight out of "The Jetsons," said Gordon van Zuiden, a member of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association and president of cyberManor, a Los Gatos, Calif.- based firm that provides networking services to homes. Visit the CEDIA site.

He insists, however, he's not talking about microwaves that also play chess.

For example, consolidating all audio and video files onto a media server is something that has become a "very real trend" desired by many Americans. And the popularity of DVR applications, such as TiVo, have people clamoring for more flexibility in using those tools.

"It's one thing to have that great pipe of content going to one computer sitting in the office," he said. But it's another to have all of that Internet content to see and view anywhere in the house. "We're seeing that architecture unfold like electrical unfolded in the 1930s."

Amy Hoak is a MarketWatch reporter based in Chicago.

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