Home, Smart Home: How to Talk to Your House

What do Heidi Klum, Matt Damon and Bill Gates have in common? They talk to their houses ... and receive pretty efficient replies.

Imagine leaving work and instructing your cell phone to turn up the heat so your home is warm for your arrival. Imagine sitting in a business meeting and using your phone to doublecheck that you turned off the iron. You can even speak to your refrigerator and request a glass of bubbly.

This is no longer a dream for futurists. This is the latest in smart homes.

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"Lots of celebrities, entrepreneurs and politicians have it," said Kevin Landry of B&H Audio/Visual in New York City, which designs and installs smart homes. "They love the functionality of controlling everything with a touchscreen or voice command.''

Sounds like it attracts those on a power trip, literally. But the average Joe can partake of this trend, too — if he has a few thousand dollars to blow.

"Smart homes have been big on the scene for about four years. But nowadays, anybody can get one," Landry said. "People spend anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000; it normally takes a month to a year to design and implement."

The smart home is controlled by wireless, Web-enabled technology. It doesn't even matter if you're renting — your smart home can be packed up and shifted without drilling a single hole in the wall.

For the last 15 years, computers have played a dominant role in controlling household appliances. The smart home takes this one step further by providing a single server that easily and conveniently manages the entire house and enables various appliances that normally work in isolation to work in coordination.

''The Web server acts as a visual representation of the home in the form of a Web page,'' said Landry. ''This can be used to control the home from either inside on a LAN connection, or remotely, providing the home intranet is always connected."

In activating your security alarm, you can also automatically close the blinds, switch off the lights, turn on the telephone answering service and deactivate the central heating.

Although smart-home systems can be installed in an existing home, the most effective results come from specialists working with architects to pre-wire a house before it's built.

This involves fitting centrally located smart systems in the infrastructure, which saves time, money and effort in creating a dream home.

"A Cat-6 [networking] cable is installed through all the walls. This transmits audio, visual, computer and high-definition data," said Landry. "All the latest electronic products now have Cat-6 input. Eventually this will become standard in all devices, thus home automation will be much more effective."

Another feature of the smart home is that regardless of where you are in the world, you can consult your phone or laptop and instruct it to check on the status of your home, make international phone calls and watch any television channel you desire without any extra cost.

Speech-recognition technology makes it possible for the user to control appliances within the home from any place, or any microphone, including the other end of a long-distance telephone.

But what happens if it all goes haywire? It still is relatively new technology, after all.

"We've had many cases where people have been watching television or listening to music when suddenly the voice command picks up on it," Landry said, laughing. "It gets confused and goes crazy. Things start happening that really shouldn't."

There's also the question of whether home automation really improves life for the individual.

"It's fabulous," said San Francisco freelance fashion consultant Justin Warner. "Not only does it save me running-around time, but also it's wonderful for relaxation and entertaining. I can come home to some nice jazz music. I can close the blinds and dim the lights. And all I have to do is speak."

A smart house can also be considered a safe house. Most special devices have battery back-up so they can be used in a power cut, and will automatically revert to a safe mode.

Another bonus is that the smart house can even send messages, warning homeowners that a light bulb is about to blow or that the refrigerator is almost out of milk.

Actually, forget the message — the latest smart home will be able to order the milk for you, or at least let you know which local supermarket has it the cheapest price.

Then again ... it is only milk. Surely it isn't that difficult to buy it yourself. Is the smart home just fostering laziness?

According to Mali Mann, M.D., adjunct clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University's School of Medicine, too much exposure to technology causes a person's brain to adjust to an overload of what he or she sees and hears.

"Without these stimulations, the user becomes bored, aggressive and anxious," noted Mann.

Cathy Warner, wife of Justin Warner, says technology has taken a toll on her own home.

"I hate the smart-home system," said Cathy, a stay-at-home mother. "I feel like I'm living in a space age. It is hardly normal watching the kids asking walls to change the television channel."

But her husband begs to differ.

"My husband is obsessed with all the gizmos and gadgets," Cathy Warner said. "Even if something isn't on the market yet, Justin has found out about it and is on the waiting list. He wants things that don't exist."

Landry confirmed that Americans are requesting not-yet-invented smart-home features, which range from iPod toilet seats to being able to start the car from home to having all their furniture automatically descend into hiding when they exit the house.

But he added that women are overtaking their male counterparts in Nerdville.

"Women are much better at operating the smart home," he said. "They thrive on the fact that they can get more done and that it looks so stylish and clean."

So if cleanliness really is next to godliness, then the average American home is about to become a whole lot more divine. But you'll have to speak up — walls can't mind-read. Yet.