The Smart Residence: Sensory Perception

Mark Stiving is disappointed in most home automation. “Any [system] can turn lights on. The challenge is turning them off,” says Stiving, president and CEO of Destiny Networks, a California home automation company that, he says, is truly automatic. The real lighting challenge, actually, is knowing when to turn them off.

Until now, no home automation system could evaluate and respond to each room individually. Most systems work similarly to a car’s dome light. The light comes on when you open the door and stays on a minute or so after you close the door—just long enough for you to get in the house. The car doesn’t know if you need the light on a little longer as you juggle your overcoat and briefcase or if it is remaining lit past the time you get inside.

One of the best applications for timed automation, says Peter Cook, president of Automation Design & Entertainment of Portage, Mich., is bathrooms. “When someone comes in, the lights go on,” he says. “Closets, too. Boom, the lights are on for a set amount of time, then after 10 minutes of inactivity, they shut off.” Parents may find timed automation useful, Cook adds. For instance, you can set the children’s bedroom lights to blink at 10 pm, announcing bedtime, and turn off incoming and outgoing calls to certain telephones in the house a couple of minutes later.

If you are reading in your office, however, you may not want the lights to dim and the temperature to drop a couple of degrees after, say, 30 minutes. Destiny Networks solved the problem of timers through what Stiving refers to as home positioning, a proprietary sensor architecture that enables the automation system to sense which rooms are occupied. Your natural movements and breathing alert the sensors that the room is occupied.

Suppose your family is having dinner and someone exits the room. The automation system understands that a person has left and a light should come on to show the way. Meanwhile, sensors are checking to see if other people are still there so the system knows whether the lights should turn off or stay on. Lighting is just one application. The sensors also can control the home’s security system, the heating and cooling systems, and whole-house audio—all depending upon whether someone is in the room.

Sensors throughout the house alert you to whether someone is in a room at any given time. On a touchscreen or on a computer, you can see the floor plan of your house and know which rooms are occupied and what doors are locked. If a room is unoccupied, it appears green on the screen. When someone enters the room, it turns white. Light green indicates the room may or may not be occupied, such as the case with the dining room as the sensors are gathering information. From these screens, you can control every room in your house. Although the automation system has been programmed to react to you in certain ways, you can always control your house manually through light switches, thermostats, and locks, for example.

In addition to turning off lights in a room you are leaving and turning on lights in the next room, the Destiny Networks system enables the music you are listening to in one room to follow you as you move around the house. This capability is part of what Stiving calls scene continuation. The settings for one room follow you as you move throughout the house. The feature is especially useful if you are going to the kitchen for a midnight snack; the lights stay on low as you move from room to room. Outside the house, sensors can detect a vis-itor’s car approaching or leaving and activate water fountains, lights, and music.

The automation system gathers information from two types of sensors throughout the house. One is about the size of a quarter and is embedded in every door frame, and the other is a plastic case about the size of a single-serving cereal box that is installed in a corner near the ceiling of every room. They are sensitive enough to distinguish whether you are sleeping or sitting still watching TV.

Not only has Destiny Networks offered an alternative to timer-based automation, but the company has also made updating and adding automation easier. As with any custom project, someone must write the programming and create the user interface—the buttons or touchscreens from which you control the automation system. You must trust him or her to integrate products and technologies that work by themselves, but were not made to operate in tandem. You could be in a fix if you want to add features and the installer is no longer in the business.

Most of the cost for home automation is related to programming time, which makes the total bill about $25 per square foot, depending on the size of your home and the level of automation, according to Steven Becker, a sales design engineer for DDS Electronic Architects in Manville, N.J. Destiny is able to charge about one-fifth of that amount because its home automation system is not custom. The key is that it is customizable.

Stiving explains the difference between custom and customizable by comparing a spreadsheet to a tax preparation program. You can use a spreadsheet to do your taxes, but first you have to write a custom program for it. It makes more sense to use software specifically written for calculating taxes. Instead of starting from scratch for each home, Destiny Networks has created software that is easily modified. Most homeowners want many of the same automation features—lighting and heating controls, for example—but no two wish lists are the same. Likewise, although there are similarities in preparing taxes, no two returns are the same.

Destiny’s automation software is written in Java, so features can be added without an integrator to rewrite the programs. “It’s only software,” Stiving says, a reminder that once the sensors are in place, functionality is limited only by programming. The setup eliminates the significant issue of trying to make different programming languages among the lighting, security, and HVAC systems, for example, work together. “Each company has its own way of doing things,” says Becker about the lack of a common operating platform in subsystems, “and manufac-turers come and go in this industry.”

The first residential home equipped with the Destiny Networks system was completed in February. “We all know there are risks in using a new company,” says Steve Johnson, Destiny’s first client. “However, they are [small compared] to the capabilities as well as the potential of what Destiny can do.” Johnson and his wife have daughters, aged 4 and 7. (His children may grow up thinking houses with light switches are old-fashioned. Imagine them at a hotel, walking into the bathroom and standing in the dark waiting for the light to come on.) Johnson’s automation system allows him to monitor them by audio or video no matter where they are or where he is in the house. “To say that I am an overprotective dad is an understatement. I wish I could catch them before every ‘owie.’ ” Networked computers in the house will allow him to check on the girls, talk to them, or turn up the temperature if they’re cold. From the Internet, he can control the house from work or on the road.

Remote access is one of the most compelling features for Donald Redmond, whose home is under construction. “I’m looking forward to possibilities such as phoning in to have the heating or the spa turned on and ready when I get home,” he says. “Once you start playing with this, there are a number of convenience features that can easily be integrated. This is the fun stuff.”

Destiny Networks, 408.782.6793, www.destinynetworks.com

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