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Is Your Digital Home Future Proof?

The first of two articles about the promise — and challenge — of building and selling “digital homes.”

The “digital home” segment of the housing industry is a promising young part of the industry that is characterized by exciting new concepts and technologies, growth and lots of change.

But while change and technology open up new opportunities, they also create challenging uncertainties.

So, if you are a builder who is promising a home with sexy new digital home features, you must first ask yourself if your new product will stand the test of time.

The Digital Home — Defined

Before going much further, let’s try to define “digital home,” an industry term that varies in definition according to which industry you ask.

Let’s define the “digital home” as a dwelling that supports seamless communications and control of entertainment and living services.

Home buyers have no idea what a digital home is, but they do care about some of the features these homes offer, such as:

  • Cable television in any room they choose
  • Wall-mounted flat screen TV without any visible cables
  • Sharing the Internet among the owners’ personal computers (PCs)
  • Listening to music in any room of the house

However, many of the developers and suppliers of the new technologies available have loftier designs on what to put in new homes. Some of what they would like to see in the digital home, include:

  • Viewing photos and videos that are stored in the den PC on the living room TV
  • Recording a program on a living room digital video recorder (DVR) and being able to watch it on the bedroom TV
  • Having the cable company remotely service the home network
  • Having the TV, DVD and sound system automatically turn to the right mode — with lights dimmed, drapes drawn and phone muted when pressing “play” — without the need for a fancy programmable remote control
  • Visually monitoring the home while on vacation by using mobile phone technology
  • Remotely monitoring elderly parents to make sure they haven’t wandered off or forgotten to take their pills

 

Cables for digital wiring may converge in a junction box in a closet or utility room. 

 

 

So, how do builders pick and choose between what home buyers want and the vast array of technology that may prove useful — or complicated and superfluous?

A good place to start is the Digital Living Network Alliance (www.dlna.org), which is working toward establishing an interoperable network of personal computers, consumer electronics (CE) and mobile devices in the home that home owners can enjoy and builders can deliver.

DLNA is in the process of developing a series of standards for the digital home that includes the following:

Centralized Architecture

Many of today’s homes come with “speed wrap” structured wiring. Speed wrap usually contains a pair of coax cables for television and a pair of ethernet cables for networking.

There may be additional cables for ceiling-mounted speakers. Cables may be wired in a star pattern, converging in a junction box located in a closet or utility room.

A fully-equipped home might put all of the electronics, except for TV displays, in a rack. Equipment may include television set top box (STB) receivers for cable or satellite, DVD, audio-video receivers, DVRs, switch boxes, network routers, modems and more.

Centralizing everything makes it easier to switch and send content — including DVR and DVD video — to any room. Devices are controlled with a programmable remote control that ultimately sends infrared (IR) signals to each device via an “IR Blaster.”

 

A fully-equipped home may have all it's electronics, except for TVs, in a rack.

 

Networked Vision

This is where the PC industry is looking for opportunities in the digital home. In theory, audio, video, photos, data and control signals can all pass through an ethernet cable.

A network-based system offers more flexibility. Signals can be switched electronically, not mechanically. It is not necessary to centralize everything, and there can be fewer cables.

Again, in theory, all components can communicate and are smart enough to know what to do for each situation. New “media servers” can store, play and send music, videos and photos. There are even some concept homes that attempt this level of service connectivity.

In reality, however, this digital home vision is not yet ready for prime time. But understanding how various industries hope to get there can help you better plan for the future.

Next Week: the next generation in ethernet, WiFi, ultrawide band and finding the right IT management firm to help you wire your new homes for the future.

Gary Sasaki is the president of Silicon Valley, Calif.-based DIGDIA, which provides strategic analysis and consulting of digital media industries. For more information, visit www.digdia.com for a glossary of more than 1,000 digital home terms, industry reports and links to dozens of related organizations and publications.

This article excerpted from the fall issue of Building Women, published by NAHB's Women's Council.

 
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