Geek house

Hardware hackers are using a fast-spreading technology called X-10 to give their homes a cheap and speedy intelligence upgrade.


Damien Cave
May 25, 2001 11:27PM (UTC)

Patrick Deutsch has turned an average Vallejo, Calif., condominium into a 21st century Taj Mahal. Using motion sensors, infrared transmitters, cameras and dozens of other products that communicate with each other via a protocol known as "X-10," he's created a hip bachelor pad that's extremely, well, sensitive.

The house wakes Deutsch up just the way he likes it: with a smooth computerized voice emanating from high-end speakers telling him the time and the temperature outside. His bathroom lights sense when someone enters, then automatically brighten. Five minutes of movement cause a ventilation fan to start spinning, and if Deutsch decides to turn on the television that sits just in front of the toilet, he can watch a lot more than NBC's "The Today Show." The TV communicates via X-10 radio frequency with the home theater in his den and several small cameras, so he can enjoy movies playing on his VCR, live footage of his backyard, the San Francisco Bay or his garage.

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He can also make changes from afar. Because the system can be run from a secure Web page, he can use any computer with an Internet connection to control the lights, thermostat, garage and other X-10-retrofitted products. Or, if he's relaxing on his black leather couch and can't find the right remote -- which is quite likely since they litter the house like dust -- Deutsch can simply tell the appliance what to do. His home networking software has a voice recognition component that lets him send commands through a wireless microphone.

"Home automation is a nice hobby to keep me away from work," says Deutsch, a 42-year-old ventilation and safety device salesman who figures he's spent 30 hours building a better condominium. "I'm trying to make my house as smart as possible."

"Smart homes" have long been a geek obsession -- as well as a first step to the greater goal of a completely networked "smart world." Major companies like Compaq, IBM, Palm, Intel and Microsoft have invested millions in new technologies that aim to cash in on a home automation market that's predicted to be worth $8 billion in three years.

But X-10 is already here. A communications protocol that utilizes a low-voltage signal to network appliances across ordinary household electric lines, or over the public radio spectrum, X-10 compatible products and software are spreading fast through geekdom. Deutsch's X-10 tinkering is hardly unique. Thousands of X-10 fans are quietly creating homes that edge closer and closer to science fiction. Whether or not you look forward to a future in which every object -- animate and inanimate -- is connected and communicating to everything else, X-10 fans are going to take us there. X-10 technology is not new, although the expiration of the X-10 patent several years ago is believed to have accelerated grass-roots adoption. Some X-10 users first started toying with the protocol as early as 20 years ago, when it first came out. But today, there's little doubt that the phenomenon has reached critical mass. Users fill Web forums, sending each other tips ideas and free software that make X-10 products smarter than ever. Hundreds of X-10 compatible products have hit the market since the late '90s, and sales, vendors report, continue to grow at a rate of 30 to 50 percent each year.

X-10 is hardly perfect, however. Even the most ardent fans complain about X-10's 0.7-second transmission delays; others bemoan the ubiquitous pop-up ads from X10 Wireless Technology, a Seattle company that sells products through X10.com, and is a spinoff of the company that originally held the X-10 patent. But those who are part of the X-10 community overlook the annoyances, they say, because the technology has reached a point where it is both affordable and adaptable.

No other home automation system hits the geek sweet spot so directly. When it's possible to make an electronic appliance remote-controlled by simply buying a $6 plug-in adapter, and when the average three-bedroom home can be "X-10'd" and Web-enabled for less than $2,000, why not make your home a bit smarter? Why not make the house of the future a present-day reality?

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X-10 Wireless Technology filed in August of 2000 for a $75 million IPO, but the SEC documents related to the offering leave a lot to the imagination. They show that X10 Ltd., a Bermuda company based in Hong Kong, spun out of the wireless division in 1997. They reveal that the company is moving beyond lights and into wireless cameras; and they note that revenues skyrocketed from $134,000 in 1997 to more than $6 million in 2000 -- although still not enough to make the company profitable.

Further details about the company are hard to gather -- even Alex Peder, the CEO, doesn't know exactly when the patent expired or what the protocol was originally created for. He also had little to say about how X-10 planned to compete against CEBus -- a technology released by several large corporations in 1992. CEBus costs more than X-10 but improves on it by sending faster pulses down the electrical wires.

But geeks who have followed X-10 from the start say that the company's history can be boiled down to a single idea: New technologies get less expensive with age and then steadily become more attractive to consumers. "I first wanted to use X-10 in the '70s when I first saw it, but it was too horrendously expensive." says Ted Seeber, a software engineer who started buying X-10 products two years ago for his Beaverton, Ore., home. "When it comes to building supplies, cheap is king."

Development has exploded thanks to X-10's low prices, Seeber and others argue. Many X-10 products, if not free or given away as promotional extras, are inexpensive enough to encourage communal experimentation. Because they're so cheap, "if you break something trying to hack it, it's no big deal," says Doug Smith, an information technology director who uses about 35 X-10'd appliances and lights in his Roscoe, Ill., home. "Just throw it away and try again."

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At least one X-10 user turned the idea of improving on X-10 into a business. Richard Helmke first created Homeseer -- a software program that Deutsch and thousands of others use to control their homes via the Web -- because he tried to automate his own home in 1999 and "wasn't happy with the software that was out there," he says. Instead of griping, he wrote "something that worked" and started selling it for just under $100.

Many X-10 advances, if not most, can be found on the Web for free. Deutsch has collected several Visual Basic scripts from other users, including one that refreshes the San Francisco Bay Webcam on his homepage.

Peder says that X-10 Wireless welcomes the add-ons and fixes. "We encourage development of software and new uses for our products," he says. "We're amazed on a daily basis at what people do with our products."

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Amazement is X-10's watchword. Consider Matthew Miller. The 26-year-old Linux systems administrator for Boston University got annoyed about a year ago with having to punch in and out when he checked in and out of his office. So after doing some research, he bought an X-10 starter kit for about $50 and a motion sensor. He set the X-10 signals so that whenever he walked in, the X-10 motion sensor would send a signal to the lights, which would come on, and to the time clock, which would check him in. When he left, X-10 told the lights to turn off and the clock to check him out.

But he didn't stop there. X-10 is "astoundingly cheap and addictive," he says, so before he knew it, he'd spent $200 on X-10 equipment. Along with connecting his home lights and thermostat to X-10, he set up a real-time Lego model of his office. First, he downloaded some free software that lets him control X-10 from his computer, then he scripted a program that checks his office status -- which lights are on, whether he's at his desk -- and posts one of 32 corresponding images to the Web. The result: His wife or anyone else can see if he's in the office or not, if he's working hard or goofing off. "A lot of the stuff you can do with X-10 isn't necessarily practical," Miller concedes. "But it's fun." Other X-10 fans agree. Dave Arguelles, a 29-year-old engineer at Sun Microsystems, is partial to the Homeseer feature that calculates when the sunset will occur in your area, then slowly brightens your X-10'd lights until they're fully on when it becomes dark. Doug Smith of Roscoe Illinois uses X-10 primarily for security; the house automatically enters "away" mode -- lights, security system on, heat off -- when his family leaves. But he's also made sure that his hallway lights come only partially on at night to "keep from being blinded by full lighting."

Then there's Ted Seeber. He's not only X-10'd his own home; he's also started installing X-10 cameras for his father-in-law's train set so that its every chug can be seen from the Web.

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X-10 geeks -- despite their obvious enthusiasm for X-10 -- do not consider the protocol flawless. They have many complaints. Smith says that the radio frequency base stations -- which receive signals from a remote or a computer, then send them to a device -- react too slowly and should be able to handle more than the allotted 16 devices. He's also critical of X10 Wireless's omnipresent online ad campaigns, which announce one-day sales and other special "limited time offers" that seem to extend for as long as the company desires.

For Rick LaBanca, founder of Home Automation Forum, a site where many X-10 geeks hang out, it's not just the deals that need to be reined in. The company's suggestive pop-up ads are notorious for suggesting that the company's miniature cameras are a perfect tool for committing voyeurism.

Still, most X-10 users predict that the protocol will dominate the home automation market for the next five years -- and most are looking forward to creating new applications. Miller is planning to put an X-10 camera near his front-door apartment buzzer so that he doesn't have to use his key. Seeber plans to X-10 the lights above his father-in-law's trains. Even Deutsch -- whose home seems completely, utterly automated -- has big plans. He's hoping to set up a weather-sensitive system on top of his roof which will check conditions and them relay them to his computer and out to another webmaster who collects data from locations all over the state.

His favorite application, or at least the one he's most proud of, however, cuts straight to the heart, to his own sensitive side. "I once used the system to apologize to my girlfriend," he explains. When she entered the house, a motion sensor triggered the voice program -- the same voice program that wakes him. But instead of saying good morning, it said, "I'm sorry."

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"It was a 15-minute apology," Deutsch says. "It got me out of a lot of trouble."


Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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