The next technology frontier: Your home


About 1 million home automation systems were sold across North America in 2011, according ABI Research. (Katherine Myrick)

From a cruise ship in the Caribbean, Erik and Ashley Binkowski knew something was awry.

The couple were monitoring the security system in their Alexandria town house using a Web site and smartphone application, both of which track the home’s door-motion sensors and security cameras. For a home that was supposed to contain two active dogs and a live-in caretaker, the system was noticeably quiet.

It turns out that their dog sitter had taken the cocker spaniel and black Labrador to his own apartment during the honeymooners’ 12-day trip, returning to the home only on the day of their arrival. The dog sitter had been busted, by mobile app.

“We didn’t confront him until we got home,” Erik Binkowski said.

The Binkowskis are among a nascent but growing number of homeowners who equip their residences with “home automation” systems that can remotely control the lights, alarms and thermostats, often via mobile devices and secure Web sites.

Call it the next frontier of personalized technology. The explosion of high-speed Internet and app-centric smartphones have made home technology — from securing your front door to turning off the lights to blasting your music — far more Jetson-like. And while some technologies have been around for years, analysts who follow this market say adaptation rates are picking up speed.

If you’re like the majority of homeowners who are still holding onto the DVD player you bought several years ago or a wireless, programmable thermostat you have yet to actually figure out, there’s hope.

A home technology upgrade is far easier and less expensive today than it was just two years ago. Here’s a look at the latest trends and how to get them.

Functionality

You may have come across advertisements for technologies that allow you to control how your home functions from the screen of your smartphone. It’s the digital equivalent of those clap-on, clap-off lights that always seemed convenient, if impractical.

About 1 million home automation systems were sold across North America in 2011, according ABI Research, a technology market research firm. That number is expected to grow sixfold by 2016.

But if you want to be among the cutting-edge (or, okay, show off a little), these technologies are easier to buy and use if you have time to do a little research.

Here’s how they work: You can now buy security cameras, thermostats, door sensors and light modules that wirelessly connect to the home’s high-speed Internet. This allows you to control all of the home’s basic functions from any personal computing device, such as a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone.

Imagine, for example, unlocking the front door from your office when the kids forget their keys or cranking up the living room’s heat during your commute home from work.

You can buy some of these gadgets individually online or at big-box stores, such as Home Depot or Best Buy, or buy a kit from some of the big names in home security and wireless Internet.

If you already have a home security system, the most intuitive place to look for a home automation upgrade might be your provider. Companies such as ADT and Vivint, among others, have added services in recent years that let you remotely control lights, thermostats and alarms.

A spokesman for ADT, which counts 6.3 million customers in North America, said about 30 percent of the company’s new residential customers opt for ADT Pulse, a home automation system that launched 18 months ago. There’s a one-time installation charge of $299 to $1,299 and a monthly fee of $47.99 to $57.99 for the service depending on the package.

But if you don’t have a home security system, or want other options to compare, several security camera makers, such as Dropcam and Foscam, sell individual cameras that connect to your wireless router and to a mobile app that you download on your phone.

Also, wireless Internet providers have gotten into this market but the service comes at an extra cost. Both Verizon and Comcast, two of the largest Washington area Internet providers, now sell home automation products.

Comcast offers basic and preferred packages that will cost you $199 for installation and equipment, such as cameras, motion detectors and door sensors, as well as $29.95 or $39.95 per month, respectively, for monitoring services, according to the company’s Web site. The service will be available in the D.C. region starting this summer.

Meanwhile, the price for Verizon’s home automation packages ranges from $69.99 to $219.99 for equipment and a $9.99 monthly fee for monitoring, according to its Web site. These kits are typically installed by the homeowner or a third-party contractor.

Vienna-based Alarm.com provides home automation software that many customers use to log onto the Web or a mobile phone and control their home systems. The company has 800,000 subscribers to its services today, an increase of more than 100 percent in just 18 months.

“We’ve been delivering this service for seven or eight years and really [in] the last one or two years it’s exploded in terms of consumer demand and awareness,” said Jay Kenny, vice president of marketing.

Of course, downsides exist to hooking up everything to your wireless router. If your wireless Internet service goes out, all of your connected systems go with it. Also, some wireless systems are limited in how much home automation they can support. For example, adding multiple cameras or sensors could overload your Internet service.

The setup can also be a challenge. Some people might find that connecting individual security cameras, for example, is fairly easy; but more sophisticated home automation systems might need the help of a professional, said Jonathan Gaw, a research manager at IDC, a global research firm.

“For something like home automation that is very new and fairly complex, that hand-holding is really important,” Gaw said.

Just for fun

The way you watch movies or listen to music in your home is also changing.

Ryan Lampel, owner of Gaithersburg-based Innovative Multimedia, summed up tech-savvy homeowners succinctly: “No one is grabbing a physical disk and putting it in a player, whether it’s a movie or music.”

That’s due in part to the growing number of homeowners who stream movies and shows directly from the Internet through their televisions. Using a videogame console or Internet TV box, your television can be connected to the home’s wireless Internet.

Your TV will then be able to access a host of applications, similar to those you find on a computer desktop or smartphone. There are apps for video services, such as Hulu and Netflix, that allow you to select a movie or TV show and watch it when you want.

The downside, however, is that the full menu of movies and TV shows may not be available through these online video services, or they come at an extra cost. So if you’re a movie buff or fan of a particular show, you want to make sure that you can find what you want before committing to a service.

More than 10.6 million households in the United States now watch videos by streaming them through their televisions, according to market research firm IDC. That figure has doubled each of the past two years. Still, that’s one-tenth of the 102 million households that pay for television from cable, satellite and telecom providers.

So how do you get plugged in? A Microsoft Xbox or Sony PlayStation are the most common ways to connect. If you don’t own a game console, Internet TV boxes from companies such as Apple, Google and Roku will do the trick for less than $100.

Products also are available that even let you take your entertainment outside of the home. Slingbox, for example, sells devices that plug into your TV and transport your channels to smartphones, tablets and other devices with an Internet connection. You can also use Slingbox to program your digital video record, or DVR, from your mobile device, so that you never miss your favorite TV shows and events.

Some companies are hoping to bypass the need for a middleman connection with Internet-enabled televisions. Models made by Samsung, Toshiba and Sony have already hit store shelves. These TVs come with the wireless Internet technology preinstalled, much like laptops and tablet computers.

But these televisions aren’t cheap and have only been bought by a narrow slice of consumers, said Danielle Levitas, a consumer technology analyst with IDC. If you bought your television in the past three or four years, having a new Internet TV is not a reason to upgrade, she said. “I do think that these set tops are great solutions for people who are on the fence or are price sensitive or have a TV they really like.”

Controlling your music

If you’re looking to upgrade how you listen to music in your home, new applications and speaker systems have made streaming music — and controlling your music — more simple and dynamic.

Like many homeowners, you might still be playing music directly on iTunes, either from your computer or a dock that holds an iPod. But products are available on the market that allow you to play music in multiple parts of the home simultaneously — and for less money than you might expect.

A line of digital music players made by Sonos are gaining traction among some homeowners, Lampel said. But it’s not without competition. Sony, Logitech and iHome also offer home music systems.

Most of these systems work in a similar way: You buy and place the company’s speakers in different rooms around your house. They’re then synced wirelessly using the home’s high-speed Internet connection. This allows you to play a single song on all of the speakers or play a different song on each speaker.

And you’re not limited to your iTunes library. These systems play music from online music services such as Pandora and Spotify, which have become popular places not only to listen to music but also to discover new tunes and share them with your friends. These services are free with advertisements or cost a monthly fee without, and they let you play a broad database of music directly from the Web.

The controls to your music are placed right at your fingertips. Many systems come with a remote or have a smartphone app for your iPhone or Android device that allows you to crank up the volume and change songs. And if your friends or family have downloaded the app, they can also control what music plays on your speakers when they come over.

Similar to the home automation systems, the reliability of the sound system depends on the strength and speed of the Internet service. If gaps or dead zones exist in your home, you might have to buy additional equipment to boost the connectivity.

The cost of these systems vary for each product and depend on how many rooms you want to outfit. Speakers from Sonos, iHome and Sony start at $299 a piece, according to the companies’ Web sites.

“The business that we’re in has matured quite a bit to the point where things in general are reliable, predictable and more cost effective than they’ve ever been,” Lampel said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries. Steven graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He resides in the District.
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