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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Your Home is Dumb; Making it Smart is Cheaper Than You Think

Posted on May 4, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C Clarke

Home automation. Smart house. Advanced home control. If those words conjure images of lights mysteriously flashing on and off at random times or of fat piles of cash and sweaty technicians huddled over their laptops programming for weeks at a time, then you need to read on. The truth about home automation today is that technology, competition and innovation have all ravaged its high-priced visage, now putting  into the range of virtually anyone. (If you’re reading this on a loaned computer at the library because you can’t afford your own computer or fancy Interwebs connection, then, I’m sorry. Automation is still too expensive for you. And instead of reading a tech site, might I recommend a help wanted or perhaps community college site instead?)

And unless you are Amish and out on your once-in-a-life-Rumspringa (and, if you ARE out on Rumspringa and you’ve decided to read this blog instead of snorting crank off the bellies of strippers and washing it down with bottles of Jack, then, bless you! You’ve made the wiser, albeit slightly less intense and memorable, choice!) then you already have some form of automation in your life.

Whether it is a garage door opener, an alarm clock, or a glorious pile of remote controls strewn pell-mell across your couch, you have some automation in your life. Even if it is just that raggedy, old-ass thermostat hanging on the wall; the one with the lethal ball of mercury that is just dying to one day shatter and burst free from its glass cocoon original Alien-style, leaping into any open orifice and slowly poisoning you, you’ve got some automation.

That’s the truth about automation; we all have it. We all live with it. We all use it every day. And even as tech-jaded as we have all become – carrying the entire world around in our pockets and then complaining bitterly on Twitter when the latest ep of Mad Men has too much buffering because we’re just out of a 4G hotspot – when you have multiple automation systems working together it is still pretty frickin’ magic.

And yet as much as we know about it and are surrounded by it, very few of you really have home automation. And if that’s because you think it’s expensive and can’t afford it then read on…

It’s true, in the past, automating a home was costly. Not quite Bill Gates or I hit the super-lotto costly, but kinda, “I vacation in the Hamptons, wear a Rolex and drive a Jag” costly. Systems by companies like Crestron and AMX could do almost anything you could imagine. Sense when you walk into a room and then automatically adjust the thermostat, fix the lights, kick on the stereo, fire up the hot tub and send a message to your “special friend” that you’re home and ready to party. All with literally no interaction from you short of lumbering past a sensor in meatspace. And if walking sounds like too much effort, you could do it from the comfort of anywhere in the world with a button press. It’s your dime thousands of dollars, you get to DJ the party.

But these systems relied on proprietary and expensive hardware and complex “How many weeks are you going to be in my house huddled in front of that laptop?!” programming to make work. (A true industry irony is that Crestron’s programming software is called “SMPL” and I can assure you that it is many, many things, but simple is not any of them.)

Further, with the introduction of the iPhone, iTouch and iPad (not to mention the many far lower priced Android based tablets), nearly everyone has some form of touchscreen already in their possession. No need to purchase the often outrageously expensive proprietary touchpanels offered by manufacturers, shaving many thousands of dollars off the price of admission. We also live in an increasingly app-based world with ubiquitous Wi-Fi, meaning that many of the things that previously could only be done by a trained professional with proprietary hardware and software are now totally DIY with just a few clicks.

When it comes to a fully automated home, there are subsystems – HVAC, lighting, security, A/V, irrigation, shading, etc. – that are all tied together by a central controller. These devices are frequently not from the same manufacturer. For instance, you might have a thermostat from Aprilaire and a lighting system by Lutron and a GE security panel, which all are content to do their own thing and run their own world. However they are also monitored and controlled by a separate, main processor that quarterbacks the entire system. It is this processor that runs overwatch on everything and allows you to interact with multiple sub-systems with a single button press like, “Party,” “Dinner,” or “Sexy-Sexy Fun Time.”

While button presses are nice – I mean, who doesn’t love pressing a good, quality button? – they also require, you know, effort. All that finger pushing. And, being near a button. But there are tons of ways to interface with an automation system that don’t involve you lifting a finger...

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Categories: May 2013, Electronics