February 27, 2011

My 2012 Plan: Full Home Automation, System Integration

If you're anything like me, you've got a ton of gadgets from different sources that should talk to each other well and interoperate, but often don't. From laptops to cell phones to video game systems, TVs, stereo equipment, wireless hubs, DVRs to the more mundane home electronic systems, you probably wish things worked together a lot better - with fewer remote controls and less regimented ways of getting things done. As for me, I'm great about buying the best stuff, but terrible about optimizing it. I know my strengths, and that's never been one of them. The good thing is that other people are, and I've teamed up with a good friend of mine to help get my house wired - the right way - over the next year.

Tom Abell, who runs the great blog Home System Integration (subscribe now), is focused on making all the devices in your home work together. So when I told him that I'd moved into a new place last summer and hadn't even taken the baby steps like putting our flat screen TVs on the walls, he knew I would be a long-term project. So I put my trust in him, and between us both, we've completely revamped my home entertainment system, both downstairs and upstairs (in my office, which doubles as a den).

Starting downstairs, with our family room, we added a Denon amplifier as the centerpiece to the system, plus a Dolby surround sound 5.1 theater system with an amazing subwoofer. The front speakers are wired from the TV, with the rear speakers getting audio wirelessly via bluetooth (from Rocketfish), suspended off our walls, masked by molding that matched the room so their connections are inconspicuous.

We then connected it all with a Logitech device that lets us control the TV, TiVo, DVD player, Apple TV and Nintendo Wii from a single screen. And wherever we could use HDMI, we did. Last night, the rumbling during Inception was enough to make my wife ask if we had an earthquake. So consider that a success.

Upstairs wasn't as big a job, but a place where I spend a lot more hours, so it had to be solid. As with downstairs, Tom and I posted the TV on the wall with a new wall mount and we also got a new entertainment center that matches my desk and is capable of locking to keep my kids' fingers out. We again leveraged HDMI everywhere, and now have the TiVo, Wii, DVD/VCR combo, Airport Extreme, Apple Time Capsule and Sonos ZoneBridge all in one place, neatly cabled. The difference is incredible. We also salvaged the Bose subwoofer and speaker setup from downstairs and brought it upstairs, so the sound is great up here too. In time, I'll probably purchase an all-in-one remote from Logitech to run the place.

Now that the entertainment side is in great shape, I wonder about being able to manage the rest of my home by computer or by any one of my mobile gadgets, be it via iPad or Android phone. Between Tom and me, there's got to be a good way to mess with the thermostat or turn off lights around the house without leaving my seat. I lust after Google Powermeter, but haven't seen that widely used yet. There should be a Web interface for the dishwasher to see how full it is and set a regular schedule. Same with the sprinklers in our front and back yard, or the lights that come on by our driveway that should start at dusk, but usually come on around midnight and stay lit until four a.m.

So yes, there is work to be done. While I may be more focused on mobile apps, trends and Web services, Tom has put together a number of solid pieces on the connected home, the home theater PC (HTPC), and Windows Home Server. He's also a contributor to Hometoys.com, which I started reading the last few months, and is on Twitter at @home_integrate.

If you're in the Bay Area, and suffer from gadget glut or just want to get them connected, it's my pleasure to recommend Tom. He promised to use me as a guinea pig, and our entire family has benefited from his strategy and physical labor, without a question. For the rest of you outside the area, make sure to check out his blog to get caught up on the world of home automation. I'm hoping to become more of an expert myself in the next 12 months, and filling some of my own knowledge holes in this space. Should be a fun challenge.