May 17, 2006 11:19 AM PDT
Is your iron still on? Check your cell phone
Is your refrigerator running? Eaton Electrical plans to come out with technology this summer that will answer that age-old question.
The company said that in July it will belatedly release Home Heartbeat, a collection of sensors that will blurt out an alert if a door opens, a dishwasher floods, the garage door is up or something else of significant import happens when you aren't at home. Home Heartbeat also can be connected to a shut-off valve for the water system and can be used to dim the lights or monitor electricity usage. Consumers can check the status of their home using a keychain-size controller or their cell phone.
Other sensors can send friendly reminders. Do you need to remember to change the filter on the heater every six months? A sensor will remind you.
"We believe the majority of the applications are just for awareness. A big aspect of this is notification," said Mark Lorenz, the business unit manager for residential products at Eaton.
Companies have chased the dream of the electronic home for years. Seven years ago, something like the Internet-enabled fridge that could tell consumers if they needed milk drew laughs. Proponents, though, have continued to study the market and believe they have finally begun to home in on products and services that could enjoy widespread appeal.
Samsung in 2004 began to build condominiums pre-wired for automation with powerline networking and a lot of flat screens. And companies such as iControl that sell Internet-enabled security cameras have garnered venture funding in the past several months, while large conglomerates such as Panasonic have announced plans to further expand into home automation. Similarly, some models of iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner can be programmed to clean at certain times.
The proliferation of broadband and wireless technologies also has created the basic technological footprint that makes it possible to place sensors or Internet-enabled security cameras all over the house, Lorenz said.
Home Heartbeat grew out of a project at Maya, a design company spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. The goal was to create a home network that wouldn't involve the angst and insanity associated with most home improvement projects, according to Maya CEO Mick McManus. (Maya also does projects for the military.)
How consumers use the sensors will likely evolve. Some consumers may want front-door sensors to determine if a burglar has entered the house. More commonly, however, people will likely use it as a way to see when their children get home. A TV sensor could be used to determine if the kids actually watch only an hour of television as promised.
You can also learn quite a bit about your family. McManus has placed a variety of sensors in his house that probe when the doors open and other events. His wife, he stated, puts on the stereo for the dog if she will be gone for a while. If he notices the door open and close, he assumes she's gone for only a little while. However, if the system tells him the stereo also went on, he knows she is going to her office downtown so he calls her there.
Eaton plans to sell the Home Heartbeat starter pack, which will come with a base station and one sensor, for around $175, according to Lorenz. The base station can be configured to send a signal straight to a user's PC or to a central processing center at Eaton. The starter pack will come with 200 free alerts. The company will then subsequently sell packs of 1,000 alerts for around $50, he said.
"A base station can support up to 30 sensors, but our research shows that a normal house will only have seven to 12. Twenty would be tough to do," Lorenz said.
The release was delayed from last year to resolve some design issues. When released, the sensors will use the ZigBee networking standard.
Over time, the company will also try to reduce the size of the sensors, which sort of look like smoke alarms. The batteries, however, need to last several years.
"The size is determined by the battery size," Lorenz said.
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