Home Automation X-10sions

And now the nominees for best use of the letter X with electrical wiring: X.25; X11r6; X-10; and X Files.

The winner is X-10, the most popular protocol for communication over household wiring. With X-10 devices, you can turn lights and appliances on and off, set up a security system and control it all from your computer. You can set up macros to do multiple operations triggered by a single event. You can even use voice commands to tell your devices how to respond, or trigger events by light or motion detection.

X-10 is typically marketed as home automation equipment, but it's also useful in the office. For instance, an X-10 motion detector set up in the computer room could trigger emergency lights and a call to your phone or pager using a voice dialer device.

There are two types of X-10 devices -- transmitters and receivers. Some devices do both. Receivers respond by turning attached appliances on or off, dimming lights or completing other tasks. Transmitters send signals over normal home wiring at the push of a button or when triggered by light, motion or voice command.

There is a wide variety of X-10 devices available, and there are many vendors for each type. I've posted links to some on Network World Fusion.

The brain of a typical X-10 system is software that runs on a PC. You can buy a basic starter kit such as X-10 Corp.'s ActiveHome or IBM's Home Director, but the best control system I've seen is Home Control Assistant from Advanced Quonset Technology. It lets you display all your X-10 devices on a floor plan of your home, while a separate pane lets you zero in on a specific floor, device or controller. The product provides wizards for common tasks for new users and a visual environment for creating complex sequences of X-10 operations connected by programming logic.

Lately, the X-10 protocol has gone wireless. I tested X-10 Corp.'s Hawkeye motion detector and Xcam Anywhere camera. Hawkeye sends a radio frequency X-10 signal to a wireless transceiver that's plugged into an electrical outlet. The transceiver sends a signal to any X-10 device or the console.

Xcam Anywhere lets you mount a tiny camera anywhere, even outdoors, and send the color image through an attached wireless transmitter to a wireless receiver within 100 feet. There's an indoor model too that would make a fine baby sitter cam. You can use the motion detector in conjunction with the camera to record images of anyone entering a room or coming to your door, for example.

The tinkerer in me really loves X-10 products. One of these days I'm going to set up a do-it-yourself home security system with X-10 technology. Memo to burglars: Please wait until I'm ready to test it.

X-10 isn't the last word in home automation. Newer products such as CEBus and LonWorks have advantages over the older X-10 technology, but they're also more expensive.

It takes a lot of gadgets for a house to become a home. I spent last weekend at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; stay tuned for reviews.

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