Next up: Smart homes

May 28, 2012

You've got a smartphone and maybe a smart TV, and may have heard that smart refrigerators are in the works. Next up: the smart home.

and are transforming daily life, so it should come as no surprise that such technologies may soon improve the places where we live.

The "" is a catchall term for a collection of technologies designed for a broadband-connected house. They allow consumers to monitor and control appliances and locks, and to automate particular tasks, such as controlling the temperature.

For most consumers, the smart home has been little more than a futuristic fantasy. Sure, some affluent families already have homes that they can program and use like computers to lock doors from afar, or have their alarms automatically set when everyone leaves the house. But the cost of such systems has been beyond the reach of mainstream consumers.

What's more, the complexity of such systems typically meant that they either had to be installed as a house was being built or they required a professional installer-further driving up their cost.

But that is starting to change. The cost of sensors and controllers has come down dramatically. Many devices now utilizing standard networking protocols such as Wi-Fi and ZigBee, an emerging low-power standard for wireless data connections, allow users to more easily build out their systems.

The growing adoption of smart, connected devices such as smartphones and the spread of wired and is allowing users to connect to their homes with equipment they already have.

But perhaps the most important change is that smart-home services are starting to be offered by companies such as ADT, Comcast and Verizon, which are making the technology more accessible by subsidizing upfront costs with longer-term .

, for example, is offering a promotion on its just-launched smart-home service that includes free installation of a standard set of security sensors. It costs about $40 a month, which is in line with what you'd pay for standard home-security services.

Of course, even if a smart home is becoming more affordable, that doesn't necessarily mean you'd want one. That said, services have some compelling capabilities.

For example, parents can be notified by text message when their kids come home-or when they don't. Or homeowners can view video recordings of everyone who has recently approached their front door. Eco-minded consumers can get smart home features that automatically turn down air conditioners when no one's around, or allow them to closely monitor electricity use in their homes.

But systems are being developed that will allow them to see how much electricity is passing through individual outlets-and get alerts when those outlets carry extraordinary loads.

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