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m-pulse / a cooltown magazine *
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

* building a savvy, smart, and cool techno-home

* * *
Power Line Control Pad

developer nuts and bolts

Take a behind-the-scenes look at one of Steiner's customized controls. This download contains Visual Basic code and documentation to enable remote setup and programming of smart light switches via HomeSeer. According to Steiner, the macro "also issues voice acknowledgments of all programming commands."


An HP developer takes control of his home to allow him anywhere, anytime access.
By Amy Cowen & Glenn Steiner

If you have ever headed out for your daily commute and been plagued by worry that you left the coffeepot on or the garage door up, you are not alone. Most likely you turned everything off, your house is safe and sound, and you are worrying needlessly, but wouldn't it be nice to log into your house via your PDA to double-check and, if necessary, flip whatever switches you missed? Or, even have your home know how to take actions for you.

A few techno tweaks to your home's systems can bring this kind of convenience within reach - no rewiring required. Ask Glenn Steiner, a program manager on HP's e-Solutions and Services team. He's on his 4th generation of what he terms "personal home control."

welcome to the neighborhood

Ahead of the smart home curve, Steiner installed his first lighting control system in an apartment in 1979. "It utilized X10 power line control with a simple timer," Steiner recalls. Having tasted the convenience such a system offers, Steiner was hooked. "With each new dwelling, I have utilized newer generations of power line control products with greater functionality." Steiner hasn't been content to sit on the curb and rely solely on off-the-shelf products, either. Early on, he began developing his own components and add-ons. "I created my first computer-controlled lighting system by writing my own software in about 1985. It ran on a Z-80 under CPM."

When he purchased his current home a few years ago, his previous home control implementations provided touchstone experience to build upon as he embarked on developing an even more robust system. "I wanted to create a system that controlled more than just lighting," he explains. "The new system does that." Indeed, it does.

From wherever is convenient, Steiner can log on, monitor, and manipulate home lighting, the sprinkler systems, the web camera, motion detectors, and more.

house IQ

Steiner's system doesn't just offer simple on/off control. Using "macros" or "scenes," he can activate custom configurations of the devices and appliances in the house - e.g., "which" lights are on and what dimmer setting each one uses - with a single click. For example, the "Evening Out" scene turns lights on and off at specified intervals that will give the home a "lived-in" appearance for the night while the "Vacation Scene" performs the same functions for a longer duration. For easy in-house lighting when the family is home, Steiner has a "Dining Scene" which "turns on entrance, kitchen, and dining room lights." The "Entertain" scene "turns on most of the lights downstairs," and the "Showcase" scene "turns on all the house lights."

"Of course, when I say 'turns on,' each light turns on to a customized, pre-programmed light level," Steiner adds.

Steiner has worked with his home control system on numerous levels to implement controls that are both savvy and useful. For example, having three kids often means the lights are left on. As a result, Steiner has responded by adding several energy-conscious mechanisms:

bulletThe kitchen and family rooms have wireless occupancy sensors. 30 minutes after the last activity in the room, the lights are turned off.
bulletHall lights are turned off 15 minutes after being turned on.
bulletAn outside light is immediately turned off if it is "accidentally" turned on during the day.
bulletEntrance walkway lights are turned on 30 minutes after sunset at a 20% level. Motion detected on the walkway will turn the lights up to 80% and then down after 10 minutes.
bulletA hot water circulating pump, which once ran 24 hours a day, now only runs when someone is in the house.
bulletA whole-house fan can be programmed to turn on at dusk, automatically reduce its speed at bedtime for noise reduction, and turn off in the morning.
bulletThe sprinklers are on a web-controlled time cycle. On hot days an extra click via the interface adds an extra watering cycle.
bulletIf accidentally lights have been left on, all house lights are automatically turned off at 2 a.m. in the morning and again at 11 a.m.
* * *

defining smart

Steiner's house doesn't use artificial intelligence - and there's no autonomous agent waiting to perform household tasks - but Steiner does consider his home a "smart home" and suggests that there are various levels of "smart" to take into account when talking about a building's brain power:

  1. An action happens automatically such as sprinklers turning on at a preset schedule.
  2. An action happens in response to an external event such as lights turning on when a guest arrives.
  3. A complex action happens in response to a complex sequence of events: If there has been no response from this sensor for the past 24 hours, then send an e-mail message.
  4. A complex action happens in response to a complex sequence of events and external information: Turn sprinklers on because it has been hot with low humidity the past 48 hours, it is not windy, and no rain is in the forecast.
  5. Have the home figure these things out on its own.

Steiner's past work has been at levels 1-2; he is currently focusing on efforts at levels 3-4.


This list offers just a peak at the "smarts" Steiner has programmed into his home. Other features help streamline maintenance and monitoring of the system - email is automatically sent to Steiner if a battery in a wireless sensor fails or if a sensor doesn't "report in" for a daily status check.

Steiner has also experimented with the Microsoft Agent, so some of the house controls trigger voice responses like "All lights off" as actions corresponding to control pad requests are carried out. "While fun, these do tend to drive my family crazy," says Steiner.

home, home on the web

While Steiner has custom-scripted various aspects of his system to allow greater functionality, the base system isn't complicated to implement. As Steiner explains, "With power line control systems the good news is no new wiring." He does admit to having replaced "nearly all of the light switches" in his home, however. "I have about 35 light circuits that are remotely controllable," says Steiner. "There are several motion sensors and about a half dozen controlled appliances."

Tying together the threads of "smart home" and "remote access" that underwrite Steiner's home control system, the web allows him to easily access and manipulate home variables via a browser because all of the appliances/objects available via power line control can be manipulated via HTTP requests.

To manage his control system, Steiner uses HomeSeer home automation and remote control software. This software offers a wide range of features, including: the ability to configure lights to go on and off at certain times of the day (e.g., sunrise/sunset); the ability to access lights and appliances via the web or email; web-based control of the VCR, heating, and cooling systems; the ability to set time limits on TV or video game consoles; and the option to use speech-based control mechanisms and Microsoft Agent.

Once HomeSeer is installed, adding many types of new appliances to the system is virtually plug-and-play. For example, "a lamp is easy since you just plug it into a power line wall module and via a web setup page make its presence known to the HomeSeer controller," explains Steiner. Not all home controls are quite as simple to implement, of course. Features like Steiner's "weather station" require additional programming.

logging into your home

The HomeSeer software includes a web server for accessing X10 devices remotely via a browser. The user can customize the HomeSeer interface - or create additional HTML pages - as necessary. Since Steiner is committed to wireless access to his house's controls, he has worked to format the online interface for display via both the Jornada 600 and 700 series products - PDAs Steiner uses as wireless in-house control pads for his system.

HomeSeer's mix of features makes it a flexible solution for those entering the home control space as well as for developers who want to move beyond canned solutions. "Because HomeSeer has opened up all command, control, and query functions for power line control as programmatic interfaces, it is very customizable," notes Steiner.

Developers have the option of executing controls using VBScript, JScript, or Perlscript. Since HomeSeer is implemented as a 32 bit ActiveX EXE, control is also possible via ASP-enabled pages.

Home Control Interface

Steiner's control pad

The following screen shots are from Steiner's web-based home control interface:

bulletOverview of Steiner's Web-Enabled Home
bulletDevice Status
bulletWeather Information
bulletHome Theater
bulletEvent Macros
bulletHome Scenes


* * *

As part of his home control system, Steiner has written custom macros using Visual Basic. One such customized control he's put in place is that if a switch is pressed off 4 times, all the house lights are turned off. Press the switch off 3 times, and "pathway lighting is created between the bedroom and kitchen at a 20% light level," says Steiner.

operation central

Steiner has an Omnibook 800 running as the home server for the HomeSeer software and web server, but that's only the beginning of the hardware flanking his system. "All computers in our home have access to the web pages," he says. "The desktop systems are connected via 100mb Ethernet. I also have an 802.11 wireless Ethernet access point in our home."

An Omnibook 600 with Windows 95 serves as an interface for a wireless weather station that posts images and current weather conditions to the HomeSeer server. Another Omnibook 600 with Windows 95 runs the web cam and uploads images to the server. A second Omnibook 800 functions as a wireless access, monitor, and control point in the master bedroom; a Jornada 620 provides wireless control from the family room.

from lights to sprinklers and beyond

As with most home projects, an "end" doesn't appear to be in sight for Steiner's home control center. It's an ongoing process, and there are numerous enhancements he plans to integrate to further expand his remote control of the house. "The list is endless," he says. "Currently I am implementing home theater control via the web. I have demonstrated web tuning of our Direct TV tuner, sound system, and TV, and I am working on macros that will turn on and tune all of the devices at once with a single tap on the Jornada screen. Of course," he adds, "the lights will also dim as appropriate for the video viewing."

Moving outside, Steiner wants "to have the sprinkler system turn on based upon past, current, and even forecasted weather conditions - or via soil moisture sensors." Adding control over the heating, air conditioning, and alarm system to the web interface also make his wish list.

When asked how the system has worked out so far, Steiner admits that while "generally the important items have been very reliable, several items under development are less so." Taking into account that the Steiner house-control "project team has only one person to manage, execute and debug things," Steiner's house is an impressive example of what's possible in personal home control. Of course, Steiner jokes, "I do occasionally get screams from family members when I test and debug too much. I guess they don't like the lights going off while they are reading."

© 1994-2001 hewlett-packard company


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