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Coming to Your Home: Appliances That Talk To Each Other

Your house is about to learn a new language. It knows several already, but right now it's hard to translate them back and forth. The "vocabulary" that tells a light to turn on when you flip a switch is about as comprehensible as ancient Greek to the alarm system. Sure, that remote control can change the channel of your TV, but can it speak to the air conditioner?

That's the promise of a new standard called Home Plug-and-Play (HPnP). It uses a common language or protocol that can carry messages back and forth between, say, your stereo and a night light. Later this year, a wide variety of manufacturers are expected to start selling home-automation devices that use HPnP.

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"The market is now ready to take off," says Mike MacAdam in the sales and marketing department of Domosys Corp., a Quebec manufacturer of chips and other home-automation tools. "There will be shipments of viable, buyable Home Plug-and-Play products in the third quarter," he says.

Of course, you may not care if your stereo talks to the night light. But home-automation experts are convinced many consumers will want to coordinate certain devices. Maybe the lights will go on when you come home at night and unlock the front door. Maybe the button that arms the alarm system also turns down the heat.

That's why behind the scenes, companies such as Honeywell, IBM, and a host of consumer-electronic manufacturers are working on HPnP devices.

"It is a case of chicken and egg," says Kurt Kyvik, a spokesman for Intellon Corp., a chip manufacturer in Ocala, Fla. Computer companies don't want to start selling HPnP software until there are devices to control. Consumer electronics companies are waiting for the software before they sell the devices. What could break the logjam is a garage-door opener, of all things.

Already, the remote that operates the garage door often turns on a light in the garage. Using HPnP, another button on the remote could easily turn on lights in your house. Look for a large national retailer to begin selling such a device later this year, sources say.

In many ways, home automation today is where the computer was a quarter-century ago. To use one, you had to be either very rich and buy a mainframe computer or very technically minded and build your own desktop box. Wealthy homeowners are already taking the first route with home automation. Since each home-automation system uses its own language, homeowners pony up the cash for expensive switches based on that proprietary standard. Or pay big bucks for a custom-installed translator to coordinate the devices. Meanwhile, technically oriented hobbyists are using an older, more limited standard called X-10. Many of them are like the computer whizzes 25 years ago who assembled personal computers from kits.

Actually, HPnP comes from one of those proprietary standards called CEBus. The difference is that HPnP, which understands CEBus signals, also comes with an open language designed to intercommunicate with everything else. Thus, a proprietary home-automation system could use the common language to speak to, say, a compact-disc player. Another positive sign is that the technology is rapidly becoming affordable. Chips used in intelligent CEBus switches cost $40 18 months ago. Today, they're about $2.50 to $8, Mr. Kyvik says. Of course, consumers will determine whether HPnP becomes the standard. Electric utilities are trying out various standards for "smart" meters. Someone else may come along with a better system that wins everybody over.

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Whatever standard wins out, your house will one day learn to speak it - and dramatically raise its IQ.

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