The Automated House: New Systems Can Centrally Control and Program Your Domestic Life

IN JUNE OF LAST year a tiny California company called Mastervoice began manufacturing the Butler-in-a-Box, a $1,495 electronic system intended to make your house or apartment do whatever you say. If you had installed the Butler-in-a-Box in your living room, you could now indulge in the lazy pleasure of lying on the couch and issuing orders into the air—turn on a porch light, turn up the heat, activate the burglar alarm, turn off a noisy stereo system in an upstairs bedroom, and so forth. The Butler would hear your commands, reply in a human-sounding voice, and carry out the instructions.

“Godfrey!” you might call out, and the Butler would reply, “Hello,” or give some other greeting from its stock of salutations. “Porch light,” you would say. The Butler, which is a rectangular black object about the size of a box of cereal, would display on its surface, in fluorescent blue letters half an inch high: PORCH LIGHT. “On,”you would say, and the blue lettering would announce ON, while the voice responded “Okay” or some other acquiescent word or phrase. Simultaneously, the light would come on.

The Butler delivers its spoken messages in whatever style you want— straightforward, politely deferential {it can say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am”), or mock-obsequious. (“Yes, master” is one of its most popular servant-like phrases, as well as the origin of the company’s name.) It can even speak with an accent, according to a company spokesman. In effect, you can decide whether you want the Butler to sound like a neutral tool for handling domestic tasks or to double as home entertainment.

When you first bring the Butler home, you have to spend several hours talking to it—training it to recognize your voice, understand your commands, and reply as you prefer. You need patience. If not trained properly, the Butler may get confused and fail to follow orders. You can call the Butler by whatever name you want. Most commonly chosen is Hal, the name of the malevolent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Second most often chosen is the name of the person’s boss.

As you might imagine, the marketing by Mastervoice (10523 Humbolt St., Los Alamitos, Calif. 90720, 213-5946581) trades heavily on novelty value. Yet the Butler-in-a-Box is more than an expensive toy. It is part of a fast-emerging industry—home automation—that in general is highly serious about giving people greater control over the workings of their houses, through mechanisms more convenient than the usual scattered single-purpose switches.

In houses costing $250,000 or more— the segment of the housing market in which home-automation systems are currently concentrated—the futuristic fantasies once associated with world’s fairs and The Jetsons are beginning to come true. The number of companies offering home-automation systems has been growing rapidly for the past five years. Since January of last year this form of domestic technology has even had its own magazine, Electronic House (524 E. McKinley Ave., Mishawaka, Ind. 46545), which celebrates the accomplishments of home-electronics pioneers and publishes an extensive annual guide to products on the market.

The systems listed by Electronic House, although for the most part not widely known, are being sold and installed in houses throughout the United States. Perhaps several thousand houses are now equipped with sophisticated electronic systems that allow virtually every electric or electronic device in them to be programmed, and that enable the inhabitants to direct their houses by remote control—by speaking, by pushing buttons on a command module, by using a touch-tone phone, by touching a video-display panel, or by a combination of these means.

These systems—which have names like HomeBrain, Home Manager, and HomeRun — are typically being installed in newly constructed houses rather than existing dwellings. The majority of the manufacturers are small companies, which find it easier to aim their low-budget marketing efforts at a few thousand homebuilders than at a public not yet accustomed to thinking about remote-controllable homes. This may well change as word about the new possibilities gets out.

ONE OF THE KEY elements in most of the new systems is an apparatus already relatively commonplace in American houses—what’s called a powerline carrier module, produced by X-10 (USA). Since 1978, X-10 has manufactured millions of these controllers, enabling people to turn electrical devices on and off by using a timer or by remote control. The controllers are sold under a variety of brand names by mail-order companies and retailers including Radio Shack and Sears. A basic X-10 remote controller, which is small enough to fit on a bedroom nightstand, comes with eight on-off switches that can be used to control lights and appliances throughout the house. The homeowner plugs the controller into any nearby electrical outlet. From then on, whenever the homeowner presses one of the controller’s switches, digitally encoded signals will be sent through the house’s wiring to a corresponding module, about the size of a cigarette pack, that has been plugged into the electrical outlet the homeowner wants to command. To achieve the same kind of control over a built-in light, the homeowner replaces the existing wall switch with an unobtrusive push-button X-10 wall switch.

Control mechanisms of this sort cost little. The controller costs about $13, and the modules for lamps, appliances, and wall switches sell for $10 to $15 each. For about $50 a homeowner can buy a telephone responder, which controls eight devices through phone calls.

The most elaborate X-10 apparatus is a computer interface, for about $70, which controls up to 256 modules and allows for programming of up to 128 timed events.

Manufacturers of home-automation systems have taken devices such as those made by X-10 and integrated them into a single network while at the same time enabling them to handle much more complex instructions for cooking, lighting, security, communications, and other household functions. The resulting systems, sophisticated and expensive, can gather information from a variety of sensors, make decisions based on that information, and provide remote control and in some instances voice control.

One of the first of the advanced control systems on the market was the HomeBrain, introduced in 1982 by Hypertek(P.O. Box 137, Whitehouse, N.J. 08888, 201-534-9700). The HomeBrain can collect information from motion detectors, smoke detectors, thermometers, light sensors, buttons, switches, magnetic door and window contacts, and other devices distributed throughout the house and its grounds. Sensors can gauge the amount of moisture in the lawn and automatically turn on sprinklers during dry weather and keep them off during rainy days. If the system detects smoke or fire in the house, it can initiate a series of responses, such as sounding an alarm, shutting down the ventilation system, and calling the fire department. It can monitor temperatures indoors and out and turn on heating or air-conditioning according to whatever timing or conditions the owner specifies.

The HomeBrain can turn on lights in each room whenever someone enters and shut them off after the person leaves. When homeowners go away for more than several hours, they can put the house on “vacation mode,” which adjusts the heating or cooling and turns various lights on and off on a random schedule to deter burglars. For most HomeBrain systems the cost amounts to about $5,000 (this includes installation, as do the prices for rhe other systems named that require it); a few rich and gadget-happv families have spent more than $100,000 to rig entire mansions to respond to every conceivable circumstance.

Energy conservation and security aretwo of the biggest reasons for the proliferation of home-automation systems. Home Manager, produced since 1985 by Unity Systems (2606 Spring St., Redwood City, Calif. 94063, 415-369-3233), controls motorized dampers that divide a house into as many as twenty zones for more precise and economical heating and cooling. Home Manager, which usually costs $6,000 to $9,000, also gives the homeowner a remarkable degree of control over security systems. The homeowner can set up a series of security zones within the house, activating or deactivating any of them as conditions change. “It allows you to have pass codes,”says Diane Ewald, Unity’s marketing manager. “If you have a maid, you can authorize her to use a code to enter and leave the house from three to five P.M. Thursday and you can tell rhe system not to allow her into the masterbedroom suite. If she tried to use the code at midnight, it would deny entrance to her and it would log the fact that she had tried to enter at that time.”

THERE’S A LOT OF disagreement about the best way to monitor and give instructions to a home-automation system. Some systems incorporate a video display that shows the floor plan of the house and indicates the status of every device under the system’s control. However, people who aren’t accustomed to the instructions accompanying a video screen may be put off by them. In 1985 General Electric introduced its limitedfunction HomcMinder (about $1,500) with advertisements showing a video screen on which instructions were written in cryptic computerese (“Cancel to quit,” “Enter for more”). No wonder GE has since retreated from selling these systems directly to the public.

“It’s got to be simple to use, simple to look at, simple to install,” insists Bruce Abraham, the marketing manager for a home-automation system costing $2,000 to $15,000 (depending on home size and options) to be introduced by early next year by Mitsubishi Electric Sales America. The system, which is being designed and manufactured in the United States (and is much different from a Mitsubishi system already sold in Japan), incorporates eight to sixteen on-off buttons (so elementary that no one should find them intimidating), a phone, and a digital keypad. The biggest drawback of the Mitsubishi system is that its master control device, a wall console, is unusually large—about twenty-four inches high and eleven inches wide. Try finding an unobtrusive spot for that in the kitchen or family room.

Digital keypads—either on touchtone phones or separate mechanisms— are one of the most popular means of control, for several reasons: they’re small enough to be inconspicuous, they cost relatively little, they’re familiar to everyone, and they can transmit thousands of instructions when different sequences of buttons are pushed. Some people position keypads in several places around the house, such as the living area and the master bedroom, and near exterior doors, where they provide convenient command of security systems and outside lighting.

At their most advanced, automation systems make it possible for people to monitor their homes not only from many places within the house but from almost anywhere in the world. Mastervoice offers a limited amount of long-distance control through an optional X-10 telephone responder, a keypad about the size of a cigarette pack, which works in conjunction with Butler-in-a-Box. The owner begins by dialing his home phone number. After hearing three beeps, he holds the telephone responder next to the receiver and presses code buttons that emit tones telling the system to turn on the furnace, turn off the security system, or regulate other household devices; up to eight instructions can be given by phone.

Unlimited control by phone—without having to carry a telephone responder everywhere you go — is available through Max, a home-automation system that was put into national distribution last year by a five-year-old company called Archinetics (1750 N.W. Front Ave., Portland, Oregon 97209, 503-2412724). After dialing home on a touchtone phone and pressing an access code, the owner hears Max, which has a synthesized voice, say something like “Hello, Bill,” and then “Enter function.” If you wanted the furnace to start warming the house, you would press “E” for “environmental control.” Max would say, “Enter environmental function.” You would press “H” for “heating.” “Present setting is 62 degrees,” Max might report. You could respond by pressing “70.” Max would verify the instructions by saying, “New setting is 70. Press star key to confirm.” If you’d made a mistake or changed your mind, you could cancel your order by hitting the “#” button. If at any point you forgot what to do next, you could push the operator button and Max would tell you your choices. “You don’t have to memorize which buttons do what,” says Grayson Evans, the president of Archinetics. What’s more, “you could tell Max your work phone number,” Evans says, “or the number wherever you are, and it would try to track you down if there was an abnormal situation, such as a break-in or a furnace breakdown.” Max can call to remind you of anniversaries, appointments, and other events. And it can deliver messages from one member of the household to another. A mother who is going out to work can leave a message for her son by speaking into a master intercom. When the son comes home, Max will deliver the message in the mother’s voice.

Max can adjust to the household’s living patterns. If you say, “Max, turn off the outside lights when we go to bed,” the system will do so, helped by builtin sensors that tell it where people are located inside the house. ‘The Max system typically costs $10,000 to $12,000 in a house of 3,500 to 4,000 square feet.

THE NEXT BIG leap in home automation will come in 1989, when the National Association of Home Builders Research Foundation starts authorizing builders to construct limited numbers of Smart Houses—dwellings in which voice control, remote control, and the programming of household devices are provided through the basic wiring network rather than through add-on mechanisms.

The Smart House, under development since late 1984, with the cooperation of some of the nation’s largest manufacturers of electrical components and home appliances, will introduce a fully integrated form of household wiring, combining the functions now handled by separate wires for electrical power, doorbells, cable TV, telephones, and alarm systems. As a result, it will be possible to send messages to any electrically or electronically controlled device in the home, and even to gas-powered appliances. Houses will be safer. If a baby puts its finger in an electric socket, the control apparatus will recognize that the finger is not a device that is supposed to receive electrical current, and power will not flow. Shocks and electrocutions should become rarer.

It will be possible to program Smart House appliances to communicate directly with a power company, so that some energy-hungry appliances, such as water heaters, will operate primarily during hours when the utility rates are lowest. Initially, Smart Houses may cost a few thousand dollars more than houses with conventional wiring, but the difference in price should lessen within a few years. Smart Houses are expected to become a prominent part of American homebuilding in the 1990s, and Smart House retrofit systems are scheduled to be introduced during that decade, so that older houses can be given the same capabilities.

As the diversity among home-automation systems grows, one of the most important questions for people to consider will be how machine-like they want their houses to become. There’s much to be said for tying together the growing array of powered devices in American homes—in an unobtrusive way. My own preference would be for a system that is little seen and rarely heard. There are already so many questions, instructions, and messages, electronic and otherwise, bombarding us in cars, stores, banks, workplaces, and other locales, that we hardly need to interject additional demands on our attention into our most private realm, the home.

Certainly, an important technology is being developed, and its impact will be widely felt—particularly as prices become more affordable and the public realizes how much mastery is being made available. Home automation is now in the position that personal computers occupied a few years ago, before thousands of stores began hawking computers directly to the non-corporate public. What remains to be established is the kind of retailing network that will move residential automation into the world of mass merchandising. Keep an eye out, as the 1990s approach, for Home Controls R Us. □