The Connected Home

What if your home electronics could talk to each other? No, we’re not talking about a bad science fiction movie. This might actually be fun. It might even be useful. Some folks call it “the connected home,” and it’s just about here. In fact, if you’ve set up a wireless home network to go with your high-speed Internet connection, you’ve already taken the first step.

Connected home entertainment

For many folks, the connected home will be about sharing all your media anywhere in and around your house. Want to watch YouTube videos on your TV? Use your home audio system to listen to your MP3s, or thousands of Internet radio stations? Browse your photo collection on the big-screen set in the den? It’s all doable -- though it’s not all equally easy.

Sometimes it seems like every electronics and software vendor worth its salt has its own strategy to move towards the connected home, though none of them offer all the pieces yet.

If you’re running Windows, you can use “Extenders” to connect TVs, audio systems, and other components to the media you’ve stored on your computer. Once you’ve done that, you can watch and hear your digital content on up to five rooms in your house. Tip: Own an Xbox? Your Xbox is an extender.

No Xbox in the house? There are other extenders, such as Linksys’ Media Center Extender with DVD, which comes with both a high-speed Wireless-N connection and a nice upscaling DVD player (next best thing to Blu-Ray). And some TVs, like HP’s MediaSmart line, are starting to come with Extenders built in.

Of course, Microsoft’s approach isn’t the only one out there – not by a long shot.

Apple TV plugs into your TV and connects it to all the content on your Mac or PC – as well as YouTube, Flickr, and anything you can buy through Apple’s iTunes music and video store. (You can even rent high-def movies through AppleTV.) Sonos’ impressive (but not inexpensive) wireless, multi-room digital music system lets you play all your favorite music all over your house—and control it all from an elegant and surprisingly easy to use wireless controller.

Slingbox connects to your TV and lets you watch it from anywhere you have a fast Internet connection: in the house, in town, or in Timbuktu. Sony’s PlayStation, TiVo’s DVR, and Vudu’s Movie Player can all grab at least selected content from the Internet without involving your computer at all.

Connected home automation

It’s worth mentioning that home entertainment is only one aspect of the “connected home.” For years, hobbyists – and a growing number of non-hobbyists – have been testing out all sorts of automated home control and security applications. These range from lighting and appliance controllers to make your house look “lived in” while you’re away... to security systems that can email you if anyone opens a door or window... to automatic plant-waterers and pet-feeders.

As with “connected home entertainment,” the home automation industry is still in flux. Not all systems work the same way (for instance, some use wireless networks, others plug into powerlines, and others require their own wires). And there are several (incompatible) standards, from X10 to ZigBee and Z-Wave. If you choose one, you need to stick with it for all the equipment you purchase.

Ever wonder where all this home technology might be headed? Your parents (or grandparents) might remember Disney’s old “House of the Future,” which ran at Tomorrowland from 1957 through 1967. Now, Disney’s Innoventions Dream Home has got more connections and automation than you can shake a remote at. If you happen to be visiting Disneyland in California, you might want to check it out.

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