Home Automation for the Rest of Us

iControl lets you be your own security company--and even spy on your kids--for $10 a month

I've never been a big fan of "smart" homes. I've always thought they were too clever by half and not nearly user friendly enough. That's been my opinion ever since I house-sat for an early adopter of smart-home systems back in the 1980s. I had to race the dimming house lights to bed--once the lights turned off, I never could figure out how to turn them back on again.

So when I heard about iControl, a product the company claims will integrate smart-home technology--such as the ability to adjust lights and thermostats--with remote home-security monitoring, and all in a system that is truly easy to use, I had to try it to believe it.

I tested a prototype starter kit from iControl Networks Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., in May and June; this included a camera, a lamp controller with on-off and dimmer functions, a sensor that detects whether a door or a window is open or closed, a motion sensor, and a key-chain remote control. With the kit came the iControl gateway, a control box with two antennas and an Ethernet port [see photo, " Security in a Box"].

Behind the scenes, the iControl system is anything but simple, relying on multiple types of communications networks and protocols. The lamp controller, for example, is commanded from the control box via 125-kilohertz signals sent over the house's electric power circuits, while wireless devices such as the camera use a 319-megahertz radio frequency to communicate. In addition, the iControl system uses standard home networking hardware, such as Ethernet cabling and Wi-Fi. The user, however, doesn't see all this; for him or her, it's all just plug and play. Or nearly.

The basic kit with a wired camera will sell for US $399. The one I tested, with a wireless camera, will sell for a slightly higher price yet to be set. Supplementary products, like a thermostat (around $170) and an emergency wireless pendant that sends a call for help (about $50), will be available when the product ships. The current system requires broadband Internet access to communicate with iControl's servers; this is where the information from all your in-home devices is collected and organized for display on a password-accessible Web site. The company, which charges $10 to $15 per month for its service, is planning a dial-up product.

I had one major glitch at the start: iControl requires that you connect the main home control box via Ethernet to an existing network router, the kind that many people use for sharing their broadband Internet connection among several computers. The Apple AirPort router that I use for my home network works only with wireless devices, not with Ethernet devices. Replacing the AirPort with a $50 Linksys router equipped with multiple Ethernet ports solved that problem. However, the company hopes to be able to support AirPort users in the future.

Next, I tried to install the tiny, battery-operated, wireless door or window sensor at the front door to detect when it opens. Since I live in an old house with ornate door moldings, I wasn't able to get the two parts, which are mounted with double-sided sticky tape, included in the kit, to align properly. Instead, I set the wireless, battery-operated motion sensor on the fireplace mantle, pointing toward the front door. I attached the door sensor to the back door, where it fit just fine, and, for double measure, set the wireless camera on the washing machine, pointed at the back door. To finish, I plugged a living room lamp into the lamp controller and the controller into the wall.

All that took no longer than 15 minutes; programming the system took about 5 minutes more. You program the system by logging on to iControl's Web site, which you can do without special software from any Internet-connected computer. You don't even need a computer at the same location where the iControl gear is installed. The connection to the iControl server is encrypted, and on my personalized Web page, a series of green dots next to the name of each device assured me that all my devices had checked in with the mother ship and were online. You can also access the site via PDA or cellphone [see photo, " Web Command"].

Once the system is up and running, the Web site will let you check a record of activity--like doors opening, motion sensors activating, and photos taken. You can also take more pictures, activate video on demand, and adjust the thermostat. Pictures are deleted after a set time passes, but users can mark certain pictures to keep indefinitely, up to a storage limit of 5 to 10 megabytes.

Just for fun, I turned the downstairs light on and off a few times from my upstairs office, and again from outside, using the key-chain remote. The remote has four programmable buttons: the one I received was preprogrammed for "home mode," "away mode," "turn lights on or off," and "take a picture." The stated range is 30 meters. In my setup, with the iControl control box in a back upstairs bedroom, I was able to send commands from the key-chain from about eight paces beyond the front door of my house--good enough.

I was pleasantly surprised how easy the system was to customize. A few mouse clicks, and I had the living room lamp going on when the motion sensor detected someone coming in the front door and the camera taking a picture whenever the back door opened. This may or may not have been a good idea; when my kids got home from school, they spent the next 3 hours going in and out of the back door, posing every time they entered.

iControl allows you to set up three different stored configurations for your suite of iControl devices--when you're home, away, or sleeping. My beta version lacked the capability to take the time of day into account. That is, I could have the motion sensor turn on the light at night, but not refrain from doing so during the day. The company promises that these functions will be active by the product's fall release.

I set the system up so it would notify me via e-mail when either the front or back door is opened if I'm not at home. Had I had Short Message Service (SMS) capability on my cellphone, I could have asked for a text message instead. I can check the Web site from home or remotely to see a log of comings and goings, as well as countless pictures of my kids mugging for the camera.

I did have a problem several days after installation with the door sensor and wireless camera going offline, but I was able to fix that by turning the control box off and back on. The company reports this is a beta problem that will be resolved, and if the system ever does go offline, it will alert the user by e-mail or SMS.

Overall I was impressed with the seamless integration of the disparate devices and the simplicity of the user interface. Would I use it? I don't have a lot of worries on the home security front, but as my kids get older, I can see it would be useful to track their comings and goings remotely--and have evidence that they came home when they said they would and of who was with them. The product, when released, will be able to be programmed to watch for activity and send an alert if it is not detected: e-mail me, for instance, if my child isn't home by curfew.

Being able to turn on the camera remotely to view a stream of video was interesting--the ultimate nanny cam, perhaps? As for the key-chain remote, I'm addicted to the one for my car, so I can see it would be easy to get used to having one for my house.

The biggest market for this kind of system would seem to be for monitoring elderly relatives. Reassurance that an elderly relative did get up and open the refrigerator in the morning, or open the medicine cabinet on schedule, could be worth $10 a month.

iControl's makers expect the majority of its distribution to be done through Internet service providers, retailers, cable companies, telecoms, and Internet portals, but it will also be selling systems directly to consumers. For more information, see http://www.icontrol.com

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