THERE'S BEEN SO MUCH WRITTEN IN THE past 15 to 20 years about smart homes and emerging wireless technologies that never materialized that it's easy to be skeptical when a new group comes along and proclaims that wireless home control is at hand.

However, there's a good chance that the San Ramon, Calif.–based ZigBee Alliance, named after the way honeybees zig and zag to communicate, may create much more than a superficial tech buzz in the next 12 months.

The group is promoting the new Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) wireless standard called 802.15.4, which establishes a low data rate network that lets wireless home-control appliances communicate with each other. ZigBee founding members include Honeywell, Invensys, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Samsung, and Philips.

What makes 802.15.4 different is that it is a nonproprietary standard in which data can be exchanged between two or more devices from different companies. Wireless home-control products are on the market, but they are largely proprietary. The maximum data rate for ZigBee products based on the new standard is 250 kbps.

“The beauty of ZigBee is that it lets you run these home-control applications at a low cost point,” says Venkat Bahl, marketing chair for ZigBee and vice president of marketing at Ember, a ZigBee member and radio frequency company that makes the chips, software, and network management tools required to implement ZigBee products.

Bahl says products from the founding manufacturers as well as from the Alliance's 60 members will start shipping in the fourth quarter of this year and early next year. He expects the group's member companies to be showing ZigBee home-control products at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla., in January 2005.

“Builders have not been in on this, but now's the right time for that to start,” says Bahl. “Our specs have been implemented and are very promising ... but we've been very deliberate about how we've moved forward because we're trying to manage expectations,” he says, adding that one of ZigBee's major goals is to develop more energy-efficient, home-control products.

Bahl says one such idea on the table is to develop a room occupancy sensor that could automatically turn off lights when a room is not occupied. He says the products that will control these functions don't necessarily have to be high-end control systems, and many implementations will be with standard living room thermostats run on AA batteries.

Bahl says ZigBee's founding members are running at least three different kinds of tests on the new home-control products. Thermostats and light switches will be the first round of products tested.

  • Interoperability. Tests for whether two devices, such as thermostats and light switches, are communicating and can pass information back and forth.
  • Multi-hop network. Although a thermostat should be able to communicate with most home-control devices, there will be instances in which the signal will pass through an intermediary device. For example, a house might have an intermediary light switch connected to a thermostat that would communicate with an outside light.
  • End application level. Tests for whether or not the devices actually deliver as promised. For example, have the lights dimmed 20 percent the way they were programmed?
  • Bahl's advice to builders interested in preparing for ZigBee: Put thermostats in your new homes with a serial port so homeowners can plug in add-on modules as they come on the market. Bahl says it's also important for architects and builders to be thinking about ZigBee in the design phase.