Mobile remote control may be the ticket for home automation

Being able to control automated appliances and sensors via smartphones and tablets is proving a technology driver

Home automation is finally moving forward under the power of smartphones and tablets, judging from developments coming to light this week around International CES.

Products for monitoring and controlling systems in homes have been on the market for several years, but mobile apps to control those products have expanded their uses and given the technology a cool factor it once lacked.

Widely available fast networks, both wired and wireless, are helping to make the so-called "Internet of things" viable, according to Endpoint Technologies Associates analyst Roger Kay. The concept refers to networking between all sorts of objects that communicate on their own, including industrial gear and "smart meters," but also appliances, cameras and sensors in homes. "I feel it's getting more real every year," Kay said.

On Monday, Cisco Systems announced a home automation platform that ties together lighting, heating, home alarm systems, door locks and other elements under the control of a wireless-based system that can be managed via smartphones, tablets and PCs. It will form the basis of a service from AT&T that will come to eight U.S. markets in March and 50 more over the rest of the year, the companies said.

Within each home, the AT&T Digital Life service will run on a central Cisco-built controller, which will have five types of radios, including Wi-Fi, Zigbee and Z-Wave, to talk with different types of connected devices. The controller will also be able to link to devices via existing electrical wiring with the HomePlug AV networking protocol. Cisco will make available a software framework for development of additional services over time.

Some exhibitors at a curtain-raising event for CES on Sunday night showed off other home products and services that tie in to control via mobile devices.

Alarm.com, which sells a service for remote control of home security systems, showed how consumers can access the service through smartphone and tablet apps to do things like arm and disarm home alarm systems. The service costs about US$45 to $55 per month and is sold through home security system dealers. It can run over several 3G mobile services in North America, including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. The monthly fee covers the cost of data used for the security service, said Jay Kenny, vice president of marketing at Alarm.com

The company is developing new capabilities for its service, including a geofencing feature that can change settings in the home or send notifications when the residents are a certain distance away. For example, if a user left home without turning on an alarm system, Alarm.com could automatically send a reminder to the user's phone when the phone went beyond a certain distance from home. The user could then turn on the alarm system via the phone. Geofencing could also be used to automatically turn on lights, air conditioners and other things when a user got close to home, Kenny said.

Home improvement store Lowe's announced new device partners for its Iris home-automation service, which lets users control security and environmental settings remotely via smartphones, tablets and PCs. Lowe's provides the cloud-based service for $9.99 per month and partners with makers of locks, motion detectors, "smart" electrical adapters and other devices that make their products talk to Iris. One of the new partner products is a hose timer from Orbit Irrigation Products to control watering in a yard.

Iris is available in three packages: a Safe & Secure Kit monitors and controls motion and contact sensors, while the Comfort & Control Kit manages thermostats and "smart plugs" for managing the home environment and power consumption. Each costs $179, and a combined system with both costs $299. The systems support a variety of wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, Zigbee and Z-Wave.

Also at the event, Netatmo showed off its home weather stations, plus a mobile app that let users monitor and share the data that comes from them. The $169 system includes one main weather station designed for outdoors and a larger one that goes indoors. Each monitors temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and carbon dioxide levels. Users can get reports every five minutes on iPhones, iPads, and Android phones and tablets, or get an immediate report on indoor conditions by pressing a button on the top of the indoor unit.

Users can also choose to share their outdoor weather data with Netatmo. Netatmo plans to make the shared outdoor data available to all users of the free Netatmo app, which will give a detailed array of hyperlocal weather reports in areas where many residents have Netatmo stations, said Mika Aim, vice president of marketing.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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