From lighting and climate control to home cinema and video surveillance, a growing range of home networking, remote control and automation technologies promise unprecedented control at our fingertips. Unfortunately, the dream of a digital home is complicated by this diversity, making integration a tricky business. So, before embarking on a home upgrade, it's worth taking some time to become familiar with the various systems, how they differ, and how they can be co-opted to work together in harmony.
X10 Automation: Lighting, Climate, Security, Home Cinema and Beyond
When it first appeared in 1978, X10 became the standard in home automation technology. Using conventional home electrical wiring, X10 transmits digital packets through up to 256 compatible devices on a single power circuit. A control centre for an X10 system may be a standalone hardware unit or a PC running Linux or Windows. Remote controls and keypads can also be used to control light dimmers, TVs, VCRs, security alarms, door locks and surveillance equipment.
With no specialised wiring required, X10 is an affordable and reliable beginning to any digital home project. For around $350, an X10 starter kit usually contains PC and hand-held remote controls as well as modules for two appliances, two lamps and a ceiling-mounted light. To use a module, you simply plug it into a power socket and then plug the appliance into the module. The appliance is then controlled via an infrared remote control or a power-point control module such as a keypad or PC adapter. Once the software is installed, the system can be run from a Windows, Mac, Linux, OS/2 or Amiga computer. A wide selection of freeware applications for use with most X10 controllers are available online.
To see an example of x10 configuration, click here.
Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) -- Networking the Home with Microsoft
As clever as it may seem, X10 is essentially a glorified remote control system for your home, limited to on, off and dim commands. In an attempt to create "intelligent" appliances that communicate via a home network, Microsoft launched their Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) technology in 1999. UPnP offers Ethernet connectivity to household appliances. These can range from lighting dimmers and climate control systems to security and audiovisual appliances. This means, in theory, that any networked Windows PC can control UPnP devices around the home (Windows ME and XP have native support for UpnP. A free upgrade for Windows 98 is available from Microsoft). It also means that you may eventually have remote access to do things like record a TV show on your home VCR via a Web browser. Unfortunately, it also means your household appliances are open to the possibility of being hacked or hijacked!
Although slow to be adopted by manufacturers, some recent UPnP devices such as standalone media players have emerged. Version 2 of the UPnP protocol is in development. This is expected to be more widely implemented than its predecessor by incorporating support for technologies such as IPv6 and .NET services.
Likened by some to UPnP, but with a smaller overhead, xAP is a network protocol designed to be independent of operating system and programming language. Although available to any mode of transmission, it is currently only implemented via serial port or Ethernet connections. The goal of xAP is a lofty one -- to provide interconnectivity between all household devices including lights, telephones, Hi-Fi units, heating systems and computers. Although in its infancy, xAP has a dedicated developer community and may emerge as a contender in the future of home automation.
Jini -- Networking Home Appliances with Java
If Java is more your thing then Sun Microsystems' Jini technology can network any device with a Java Virtual Machine over Ethernet, Firewire or HomeRF (a proprietary radio frequency wireless networking technology). Although it has the backing of vendors such as Sony and Philips, Jini remains within the realm of Java purists and programmers prepared to build their own interfaces and hand-code appliance drivers.