Associate Editor

Hold on to your remote controls, your living room is about to go Wi-Fi. Better wireless-fidelity technology able to support high data rates is making it possible to share Internet access between any number of home devices, including home-entertainment equipment. Until now, the home office was really the only room taking advantage of Wi-Fi, wireless local-area networks (WLAN) based on IEEE standards for 802.11b. But high-end Wi-Fi variances, such as 802.11a and .11g, are promising big things for homeowners. Imagine TVs that not only stream movies from the Internet, but also let you see what's happening in another room. Or refrigerators that keep watch of expiration dates and let you download recipes from the Web. And smart ovens that keep your casserole cold until programmed remotely to "Start Cooking."

"This is why the consumer-electronics industry is so excited," says Senior Industry Analyst Sean Wargo, Consumer Electronics Association. "There's much content that can be shared throughout the home." Wargo admits it will still be some years before every device, from PCs to TVs to appliances, has its own built-in wireless card. But, he says, the industry is making big strides, as more and more consumer-electronics products are Wi-Fi enabled. That point was driven home at the recent 2003 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Read on for some of the latest wireless home wonders at CES.



Total home control

Home control at the touch of a button. That's what you'll get with the new Modero line of touch panels from AMX Corp., Richardson, Tex. (www.amx.com). The highly graphic panels use up to 24-bit color depth to display 16 million colors with 160° viewing angles. Sensors within the panels automatically adjust to the display under changing conditions. For example, a built-in motion sensor "awakens" the panel when the homeowner comes into a room. A second sensor automatically adjusts screen brightness based on available light. With low ambient light, the panel screen automatically dims. Speakers mounted in the panel let prerecorded audio files automatically play prompts, reminders, and greetings. The 12 or 15-in. panels come in both tabletop and wall-mount styles.

To see how AMX touch panels are at work in a smart home demo, check out the Progressive Home at www.progressiveaudio.com.


Get off my lawn!

Camera lets you watch your home from afar

Keep an eye on your house from your desk with new Web-enabled cameras from Panasonic, Secaucus, N.J. (www.panasonic.com). The KX-HCM230 and KX-HCM270 network cameras can broadcast high-quality 640 3 480 live video for remote viewing from a networked PC, or for distribution over a network or the Internet. The cameras can sit wherever there is an Ethernet connection and a power source, without a direct PC connection. The KX-HCM270 is wireless and works with any 802.11b-compatible router or hub. The cameras can connect to standard security devices such as smoke detectors or motion sensors. If something triggers a device, your camera could e-mail you an alarm. Each camera has a built-in Web server and its own Web page where images can be viewed.


Fashionable touchscreens

Fun, graphical, and economical is how Home Automation Inc., New Orleans (www.homeauto.com), describes its new OmniTouch controllers. The colorful plug-and-play touchscreens use recognizable icons to allow one-touch control of security, HVAC, lights, and small appliances in the home. The small, rather elegant units have a screen size of just under 4 in., and weigh less than a pound. The OmniTouch is self-configuring based on the setup of the Omni-family controller. No programming is needed. Any changes made to the Omni-family system automatically show on the touchscreen, so users can maintain or reprogram the system remotely.


See Spot. See Spot in your watch.

Get ready for new geeked-out watches that are anything but geeky. Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) and major watchmakers, including Citizen, Fossil, and Suunto, have developed smart customizable watches for the average gizmo-loving Joe. The watches are built on Smart Personal Objects Technology (Spot), designed to give wearers instant access to Web-based information such as traffic and weather reports, stock quotes, and sports scores. Other Spot-enabled devices may eventually wind up in the home as alarm clocks and refrigerator magnets that give homeowners weather updates and calendar information at a glance.

Microsoft and National Semiconductor Corp., Santa Clara, Calif. (www.national.com), teamed to develop the chipset technology behind Spot devices. At the heart are two custom-integrated circuits: A baseband processor with digital-signal processing accelerators built on a standard ARM7 core; and a special radio chip. Besides the need to be small, Spot devices must have low-power consumption, built-in security, and high-volume manufacturability. National designed four power-management chips and one low-power amplifier to fit Microsoft's Spot reference platform. The whole setup has seven chips on a 34 3 30-mm system board. Spot devices will get information from the Web using Microsoft-created DirectBand, a nationwide WAN based on FM subcarrier technology and new radio protocols.

Microsoft and its partner companies have other wireless networking options for the home. One example is the Windows XP Media Center Edition on new laptop Media Center PCs from Toshiba's Computer Systems Group (www.toshiba.com) and Alienware Corp. (www.alienware.com), and on Viewsonic Corp.'s (www.viewsonic.com) line of Digital Media Center home PCs. Windows XP Media Center Edition essentially turns a PC into an entertainment hub, integrating digital devices such as live TV, personal video recording, digital music, DVDs, and digital photos.

At CES, Microsoft also introduced Windows-powered Smart Displays from Viewsonic, called airpanel V110 and V150, and the DesXcape 150 DM from Philips Consumer Electronics (www.ce.philips.com). The wireless flat-panel displays do double duty as standard monitors, when docked to a base-desktop PC, or portable monitors using 802.11b. Users can carry them from room to room and still log on from their desktop PC. The Viewsonic airpanels include a wireless adapter and an upgrade to the Windows XP Professional operating system. The Philips DesXcape includes a USB wireless adapter, docking station, and, for a limited time, the DesXcape Wireless Keyboard. Both Smart Displays have XScale technology-based processors from Intel (www.intel.com)specially designed for low power consumption.


Software for smart living

High-end home-automation in an affordable package. That's the claim of the new Plexus Home and Life Automation System from Scientia Technologies, Sterling, Va. (www.scientiatech.com). The home-networking software gives users control over household electronic appliances using any smart platform, including palmtop or pocket PCs, cellular phones, and Windows-based PCs. The system supports wireless and wired signal standards, including consumer infrared, X10, IP/http, S-Link, and Bluetooth. "This isn't just about turning on and off the DVD player," says Scientia's Steve Hayes, vice president for development. "It's about managing and accessing anything in your home or life in a very visual, intelligent way. For example, you can stream video from a security camera or baby monitor or access detailed, searchable TV listings in real time, from any smart device."

One feature called MediaSelect lets users automatically catalog CDs, DVDs, MP3s, and other media in minutes, and then search by genre, title, or artist. The program also has SystemSense, which uses signal-strength measurement, Bluetooth discovery processes, and other methods to automatically determine where you are in your home and display the appropriate controls. So, for instance, if you push the "Play" button, the software knows if you mean the VCR in the bedroom or in the family room. An ActiveGuide feature keeps your TV loaded with all your favorite programs by continually updating and filtering the TV listings according to your specifications.

An instant-messaging feature lets users send or receive secure messages from the Plexus system using any Web-enabled device. The system "listens" for commands under its own account name. Suppose you have a X-10-enabled security camera at your home. Plexus can instantly alert you if the camera detects motion. On the flip side, you could send a message to Plexus to, say, turn the heat up in the house before you arrive home.


The ultimate oven for busy domestic goddesses

Late for dinner? Don't worry, your oven will wait. Tonight's Menu Intelligent Ovens from TMIO LLC, Brecksville, Ohio (www.tmio.com), take home networking to new levels. The Web-enabled smart ovens can be controlled remotely in real time via a cell phone, computer, or PDA. Users can easily set cook times, delay cook times, increase the hold time, change cooking temperature, or cancel the cooking cycle altogether. The unit operates using standard TCP/IP protocol superimpressed on a powerline. Users simply attach a phone line or Ethernet connection to the appliance server and plug it into a home outlet.

Integral to the high-tech range is Embedded Web Technology from NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland. The remote-access software platform is the same technology used by NASA to get real-time information to and from the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. TMIO also worked with Oceaneering Space Systems, Houston (www.oceaneering.com), to develop the oven's Peltier microrefrigeration mechanism.

Tonight's Menu software is written for MS Windows. To make users' lives even easier the software mimics the actual appliance controls: Users simply click a button that matches that on the actual appliance. Homeowners can add frequently prepared dishes to the program, and each has its cooking and refrigeration steps spelled out. Once the user tells the oven what time to prepare the dish, the software uses the already-defined steps to automatically calculate when to start cooking. This feature comes in handy when preparing multiple items at once. For example, the oven will begin roasting the chicken well before the microwave starts cooking the carrots.






SORTING OUT THE ALPHABET SOUP

802.11b802.11a802.11g
Widely adopted and readily availableNew technologyNew technology
Up to 11 MbpsUp to 54 MbpsUp to 54 Mbps
InexpensiveRelatively more expensiveRelatively inexpensive
Operates in more crowded crowded 2.4-GHz band. May cause conflicts with other 2.4-GHz devices including cordless phones and microwaves.Operates in uncrowded 5-GHz band and can coexist with 2.4-GHz networks without interference.Operates in crowded 2.4-GHz band.
Good range, typically up to 100 to 150 ft indoors.Shorter range, typically 25 to 75 ft indoors.Good range, typically up to 100 to 150 ft indoors.
Works with public hotspotsNo public access currentlyCompatible with Wireless-B networks and hotspots
Widest adoptionIncompatible with 802.11b or .11gInteroperates with 802.11b networks. Incompatible with 802.11a.
Information taken from www.linksys.com