Exploring Technology's Impact

Name three no-brainer technologies that all new homes should include, right now.

Modern homes already have basic wiring for lighting, thermostats, telephones, TV and ordinary things like doorbells. The next step is to integrate them so they add more value by working together. This requires the proper design and installation of networks. Home network wiring (sometimes called structured cable) is the single most important thing to get right. But networks can be of different flavors and provide different kinds of functionality. We typically install separate data, phone, control and media distribution networks that meet at one carefully designed location called the structured cable head end.

Next to networks, I think all homes should have provisions for a real media room. Media rooms can be casual, like a family room, or formal with multitiered seating. They should never be an afterthought. All media rooms need proper acoustic design, ambient light control, good ergonomics and comfort.

Finally there should be control integration for lighting and HVAC. Lighting controls and remote controllable thermostats certainly add convenience, but more importantly they can increase energy efficiency in dramatic ways.

What are some technologies being developed now for the residential market that builders and homeowners aren’t even thinking about today?

There will be lots of interesting developments hitting the market in the next few months. Strange as this may seem, cell phones will become an essential device in the home. We will soon see cell phones integrated with media and control systems. For example, from work you could greet the UPS driver who is standing at your front door, let him in, talk to him through your front hall stereo speakers, and then watch him leave from the hall camera. Cell phones will also become a handy remote control for TV, music, lights — you name it. Bluetooth wireless sensing will inform the home control system where you are in the house (and who you are) by detecting your cell phone, allowing some intriguing lifestyle control scenarios.

Games are big, but many families have not found a way to integrate them into a family experience. The days of junior huddled over a game console in his bedroom will soon end. Next-generation consoles will support games that out-perform traditional media, and they will be addictive. My philosophy is to blend games with other family-oriented shared media experiences.

As game technologies progress, we’ll have the tools to create an affordable virtual reality space in the home. I’m talking about a special room versatile enough to allow you to have a video conference with grandma on Sunday morning, or chop the heads off attacking Orcs on a bloody battlefield. Think of the virtual reality room as a media room you can stand up in and interact with.

Another huge development will be robotics. We already have iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner and Scooba floor washer. Little critters like these will find useful niches all around the house. Eventually, robots will become caregivers for the sick and elderly. Which leads me to in-home health monitoring. As baby boomers age at home, they need more elaborate methods for staying in touch with family and caregivers. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to sensors that will detect if someone has gotten out of bed, used the toilet or opened the medicine cabinet.

What’s the one technology that will impact home technology the most in the next few years?

Converged digital content stored on media servers. This is nothing more than a big hard drive with capacity to store and distribute any manner of media, including photos, music, home videos, DVDs, movie downloads, or recorded TV programs. There are cheap solutions everywhere you look these days, and not all of them work well or make it easy for the family to understand so one must be very careful when choosing a media center or server to specify.

One of the most requested technologies that still doesn’t have a great solution is a DVR (digital video recorder, like TiVo) that can store content in one place and play back different programs simultaneously in different areas of the house. IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) will become a huge phenomenon and could make this process a bit easier. It simply means that our TV content will come from the Internet, not from traditional broadcast sources like over-the-air, cable and satellite. Of course there will be a transition period where we will need to support both, but eventually people will become addicted to the personalized content filtering that IPTV supports. It’s video on demand with gazillions of program choices, some becoming quite specialized.

TV from the Internet will create demand for media center computers and other devices for capturing, storing and distributing this wealth of content. Clearly, none of these IPTV-related technologies will work without a rock-solid data network in the home.

Who will drive the demand for these products? Consumers? Electronics integrators? Builders?

It’s a value chain that requires coordinated marketing from content producers, equipment manufacturers, builders, retailers and installers. Consumers must ultimately drive demand, but there need to be more success stories to encourage them. Right now most consumers aren’t asking for new home technologies because they assume they are prohibitively expensive or that they just don’t work. This has, in fact, been true.

It takes a high level of expertise to design and install reliable networks and control interfaces. The CEDIA channel of Electronic Systems Designers and Contractors is dedicated to the highest levels of performance and reliability. They can get the job done, but there is a price to pay. You really do get what you pay for.

Consumer do it yourself products have an alarming return rate because they are nearly impossible for untrained homeowners to install correctly. Relatively simple technologies like WiFi or HDMI have become a real mess, so professional integrators will have to step up and find more effective ways to reach a broader customer base by lowering their cost of doing business. The big-box movers already have trained installers in the field, but they can be limited when integrating complex systems that require long-term customer relationships.

How will consumers use their homes for entertainment/communication in the future?

I’ve already talked about things like digital media, games and virtual reality. I like to study how families behave when presented with these new technologies. The phenomenon of personal content creation and sharing will become a huge driver for digital media distribution, both inside the home and to friends and family around the world. Flicker and YouTube are great examples.

This urge to share leads us to what I call “Presence.” Families want to be present with each other—to stay in touch and feel connected even when separated by great distances. Clever designs for media distribution and communications will enhance the lives of families in ways we’ve never seen; they will remain much closer to each other in spite of their far-flung lives. If you would permit me to stretch the concept a bit, I could define the next generation home to be a virtual space for families to be present in, not necessarily confined to the traditional boundaries of the house itself. The persistent virtual world (some people consider it a game) called Second Life is a telling example of how families could build a virtual home to help them stay in touch while away from their real house. Second Life has become a fascinating phenomenon that connects people in completely new ways.

Why is it important for builders and architects to get an ESC involved early in the design/construction stages?

You can’t possibly start too early with an ESC. Decisions have to be made during the architectural design phase to support many technologies throughout the house. For example, a structured cable head end must be allocated as the floor plan is being designed. This room, often called the Electrical or Control Room, needs special cable management, service access, power and ventilation. Never put the head end into a hall closet where it can be abused by soccer balls and vacuum cleaners.

Flat panel displays are getting bigger, cheaper and much better. Everyone wants them, but they can be an extreme challenge to install. We’re frequently asked to hide them in cabinets, behind sofas, at the foot of the bed or in the wall above a fireplace. These placements can require custom framing and wall construction, power and cable management, and ventilation, which are usually overlooked. It is much more cost effective to plan these installations before the wood goes up.

One more point, builders are responsible for selling a huge amount of technology in the home; over $11 billion in 2004, according to Parks Associates. But I have to believe there is a huge amount of money left on the table as well. Most builders don’t have the time or resources to keep up with new technologies and often recommend them without sufficient guidance from a knowledgeable technology professional. Working with a skilled ESC will bring more options to the discussion, which can eventually serve the needs of the homeowner much more effectively.

What red flags should builders and architects look for when preparing to partner with a home technology integrator? Why is it important for builders to partner with a quality electronics technician? How can they assure themselves they’re partnering with a quality contractor?

Experience. Training. Certification. Commitment to long-term relationships. Referrals. Ability to offer on-going support.

Experience is everything. There are a lot of newbies entering the installation business who have not taken the time to learn essential codes and standards or best practices. Additionally, there are subtleties to designing and installing technology that one can only learn from hands-on experience.

Obviously, due diligence should be regular practice when assessing the capability of a contractor. Ask for references and call them, you might be surprised by what you hear. The best ESCs have managed to stay in business by finishing what they start—and that is vastly more difficult than one would think.

Many technology design and installation companies try too hard to impress their clients and actually end up make their systems unreliable and hard to use. Find a firm that has a mature understanding of the power of simplicity in their designs. We’re past the age of gaudy touch panel control systems that no one can understand how to use. Many of my most sophisticated clients are asking for the simplest possible remote controls. TiVo’s remote control is one of the best and families often prefer using it over the fancy touch panel. That is a message to pay attention to.

CEDIA has amazingly deep and varied training and certification programs. Our virtual university has five colleges dedicated to key aspects of the profession: Technical Installation, Design, Project Management, Business and Customer Relations (sales and marketing). CEDIA has crafted two to four year training programs that prepare designers and technicians to perform at the highest levels and to build sustainable businesses. I would look for firms that employ CEDIA certified professionals. They have had best-of-breed training and are prepared to advise clients on emerging and future technologies. Working with a trained and experienced Electronic Systems Contractor will have a huge impact on how families can get the most from their home investment.