IBM Home Director Starter Kit
One step closer to The Jetsons
Home Director Starter Kit
The idea of home automation has an extensive history in modern popular culture. Most people automatically think of The Jetsons, but there's more to it than that. In the 1950s, cartoons from MGM and Warner Bros. spoofed the idea of push-button houses and the salesmen who hawked them. (What? You don't remember Daffy Duck warning Elmer Fudd not to "push the wed button"? Shame on you.) Of course, these cartoons were also making fun of the automated houses being touted in magazines and television at the time, promising everything from automatically prepared meals to robot servants. The goal was to provide the nuclear family with more of that all-important leisure time (and, presumably, to work on being ever more wholesome).

The idea still has some allure: witness the collective oohs and aahs over Bill Gates's überhome, with its automatic follow-me-around lighting and customizable artwork. While awe-inspiring, the truth of the matter is that anyone with a computer can automate their home.

It all started in 1978, when a company named X-10 started releasing products based on a protocol of their devising (also referred to as X-10). The idea was, and remains, simple. Using plug-in modules, the prospective home automator gains remote control of his (home automation fanatics seem to be uniformly male) electrical devices without any rewiring.

The premise has remained fundamentally the same for twenty years: the user creates a set of commands--a "routine"--using supplied software, and downloads it to the computer interface module plugged into a nearby wall socket. Other plug-in controller modules, each identified by a house code (A-P) and a unit code (1-16), can be sprinkled around the house, connected to various devices. The interface module can then control any of the controller modules by transmitting RF signals through the house's existing wiring.

I'm being deliberately vague here, because what you do with these modules depends almost entirely on your imagination and your budget. The various controller modules are fairly inexpensive (around $20-25), and can control incandescent lamps, ceiling and wall-mounted lights, home electronic systems, and even air conditioners.

With these basic X-10 components, lights can be programmed to switch on or off at certain times; the coffeemaker can be programmed to start brewing shortly after you wake up; or you can simply have control over your lights and appliances from anywhere in the house. For true propellerheads who settle for nothing less than total control, third-party companies also supply motion detectors, voice activation units, and other gadgets that work with X-10 devices.

X-10 sell their hardware and software packages under the ActiveHome moniker, but other companies such as RCA, Home Automated Living, and IBM have gotten into the game as well. In particular, IBM's Home Director has been the most visible outside of home automation-specific publications.

The Home Director Starter Kit couldn't be more aptly named. The box contains a PC connection module, two controller modules (a lamp module and a remote module), and a remote control. This is just enough to control two devices, and not incidentally whet your desire to buy more modules.

After unpacking the components, I had to make a quick jaunt to the store for batteries for the PC connection module and the remote control. Six AAA batteries later, I plugged the PC connection module into the wall socket under my desk (fortunately, its pass-through accepts power bars) and connected it to one of the computer's serial ports. While the software installed on the PC, I busied myself with the two controller modules. The lamp module (set to A1, or House Code A, Unit Code 1) went into the wall socket next to the bed, and I plugged my reading lamp into it and turned it on. I set the remote module to A9 and similarly installed it in the living room.

After running the Home Director software, I was greeted by a control panel for module A1, and then spent the next five minutes playing with the bed lamp from the PC, turning it on and off and dimming it. (Similar playing with A9 revealed that the remote module makes an annoying clicking noise when it receives a command. It has since been relegated to the coffeemaker.)

The next step, of course, was to try the automation features; I decided to create a routine for my bedtime reading. Every night before a work day, I read for about an hour before going to sleep. Unfortunately, I often get engrossed in my reading and end up staying up too late (years ago, I read until dawn); on other occasions, I fall asleep while reading and leave the light on all night. Using the Home Director software, it was fairly easy to create a routine where every night between Sunday and Thursday, my lamp would switch on at around 11:00, and at midnight dim to 50% brightness for two minutes--long enough for me to finish my paragraph and put the book away before the lamp switches off. After a few false starts (mea culpa: I didn't read the manual fully), everything was up and running. Now that I've cut my routine-programming teeth, the next job is to have the coffeemaker start up automatically every weekday morning.

Depending on your needs, you can program events in relation to local dusk or dawn times, or set events for approximate times. (The latter is designed for making houses look lived in while on vacation.) There is also an option for Home Director to keep track of the last 24 hours' module commands, so that it can build a program based on your regular usage pattern.

Finally, there's the included remote control, which can control five audio/video devices--and, more pertinently, any X-10 module in the house, provided the remote module is plugged in. If you find carrying a remote around too cumbersome, IBM will happily sell you a keychain remote for $17.

I do have one warning for anyone who wants to try this: be sure to read up on what kind of devices can be used with certain modules; for instance, home electronics, lamps with power-saving light bulbs, and fluorescent lamps should not be plugged into a lamp module. Also, some newer audio/video equipment don't work with X-10 devices at all. Details on these and other issues are available on X-10's home page.

Home Plug and Play, a new home automation standard, is slated to debut at the end of the year; being a more recent spec, it will probably make these problems non-issues. It also promises to more tightly wed PCs, televisions, and home appliances. But that's the future; X-10 works, and has a host of inexpensive add-ons so that you can customize to your heart's content. You can start releasing your inner George Jetson right now.

Originally printed in The Computer Paper (June 1998)