For regular readers of this column, it will come as no surprise that I am not a big fan of things Microsoft. It's not that Windows is not a perfectly fine operating system or that MS Word and Excel aren't software industry standards. It is the vulnerability of Windows to viruses and worms–and the hackers that write them–that disturbs me.
However, for most buyers of production homes, the only fully-integrated solution (one that encompasses both audio/video and home control) is Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition. And while proprietary systems such as those from Creston and AMX will run everything in the home–including the teapot, if you want–these close-ended systems are very expensive: For an average sized home, start counting at around $50,000 and keep adding from there.
A number of companies are using the Media Center Edition as a base for their home-control products. One of the newest is called Lifeware from Exceptional Innovation, based in Columbus, Ohio. It's a combination of home-control software and off-the-shelf computer equipment that connects to partner systems the same way as a computer “discovers” peripheral devices using USB. Partner systems for lighting, security, HVAC, and remote controls include those from Vantage, HP, Lutron, Honeywell, GE, Panasonic, Insteon, OnQ, Zwave, Russound, Netstreams, Vaux, Aprilaire, Axis, and Global Cache.
“It's not an all or nothing approach,” says Matt Peters, president of Wireless Home in Naples, Fla., a custom electronics design and installation company that is currently installing Lifeware in several homes. “And its price is predicated on the number of devices you want to control.”
The base system starts at around $2,000, plus the computer equipment on which it runs. According to Peters, builders can reap margins of 20 percent to 30 percent over the wholesale cost of the systems controlled by Lifeware.
The system security issue is handled through the Lifeware controller, which has Windows XP embedded in its chipset. That means viruses cannot alter the software, and if it somehow gets hung up, a simple reboot clears the problem. The system's central computer, which is also used as a media server, is protected by a firewall. Even though the home network may include standard office computers, should they become infected, the virus will not be able to bridge the firewall into the server. In addition, all content is backed up.
Functionally, the Lifeware system, combined with lighting, security, and HVAC packages from partnering vendors, will allow the homeowner to set the temperature zone by zone; control lighting and multisource, multizone audio throughout the home; and watch or record live TV (except encrypted signals from cable and satellite operators) in the living room, pause a program, and pick it up in the bedroom. Oh, and if there's someone at the door, a remote camera can be accessed via the TV to see who's at the door. All of this can be controlled from the TV screen or through Lifeware touchpanels, which can be added to the system.
Andre Brown, general manager of Exceptional Entertainment Experiences in Naples, Fla., owned by Lifeware's parent company, says structured wiring is not necessary, but it is advisable. “It's not complicated at all,” he says. “It's just pulling the wire into the right places and setting up your network.”