May 10, 2004 -- Turning on a household light is usually a simple matter of flipping a switch. But what if that one simple flick of a finger could also turn up the home furnace, draws the blinds in the living room and maybe turn on a little relaxing music?
Such smart home setups — once the stuff of sci-fi novels and luxury homes of owners with the deep pockets for an expensive, custom installations — are slowly making their way into the mainstream market.
For years, hobbyists with technical knowledge and patience have been toying with home automation setups using the so-called X10 protocol. These systems use a home's existing electrical wiring to transmit control signals, which makes such setups inexpensive to add but a tad unreliable.
But the latest stab at simple home automation may be a new wireless standard dubbed ZigBee. Backed by industry heavyweights such as Philips, Honeywell, Motorola, and Samsung, the protocol has yet to be ratified and accepted industry wide. However, a company called Zensys in Copenhagen is ready to get the ball rolling.
The Danish company has begun releasing a new home control system called Z-Wave. The setup uses controllers featuring specially-designed chips with built-in radio transmitters and receivers that communicate over the 900-megahertz frequency.
Using proprietary software, each chip in the controller establishes its own unique "address" in the system and can automatically look for other nearby controllers or any other device embedded with a Z-Wave chip. Much like computers on a local network, each Z-wave controlled-device acts as a "node" and can share information with each other.
By establishing this "mesh network" approach, Z-Wave's home automation has improved range and reliability over other home systems that may be using the 900-megahertz frequency.
"The devices are smart enough to find the best way to route commands to where they need to go," says Michael Dodge, vice president of marketing for Zen-sys in the United States.