Bill Gates's Washington State lakefront mansion has got everything a billionaire could ever want: a massive swimming pool with an underground music system, a domed library, a boathouse, several garages, and a tennis court, among other features. The 66,000-square-foot compound is also, not surprisingly, high tech to the hilt.
Dubbed a "smart home", Gates's abode has automatic everything. Every guest or resident wears a little pin with an electronic tracking chip that learns each person's preferences when it comes to everything from room temperature to lighting; it even adjusts those preferences automatically. As they move throughout the house, lights turn on before they enter a room and click off when they leave; their favourite music follows them throughout the house.
But home-centred technology isn't just for kazillionaires and celebrities anymore. Smart homes and home automation are becoming mainstream.
"This type of technology is no longer for just the rich and famous," says Waterloo, Ont. realtor Russ Hunter, who now develops custom real-estate newsletters through his company, Real Estate Word. "It's a major selling point, and the higher your home's IQ, the higher the resale value will be.
"Smart homes allow devices to communicate with one another in order to complement your daily routines," he adds. "You can program your blinds to slowly open in the morning while at the same time the bathroom floor warms up ... Keyless entry systems that use fingerprint sensors can also trigger certain home appliances and devices depending on who enters."
The list goes on: in the works are refrigerators that create recipes based what food is stored inside, washers and dryers that send text-message alerts when a cycle has finished, and garbage cans that monitor what's been thrown out and generate online orders for needed items; motion sensors can send text messages when a door or window has been opened.
The smart-home market was estimated at totalling about $10 billion in 2010, up from $1.3 billion in 2007.
The Museum of Science and Industry's current exhibit called Smart Home: Green + Wired -- on now through January 2013 in Chicago -- comes complete with a real house decked out with some of the latest technology, such as a bathroom mirror that displays the day's weather and headlines and blinds that close automatically when it gets too hot.
Then there's a system to monitor energy consumption by room and appliance. The whole house can even bet set to "hibernation" mode to minimize energy use while its owners are on holiday.
Although newly built homes can be wired during construction, there are plenty of gadgets you can buy piecemeal to start creating your own smart home.
Take a look at some of the products on the market today.
- IrrigationCaddy (US$179.99 at Smarthome
Here's a way to take care of your lawn through your computer, iPhone, iPad, or any other web-enabled device. You can control and schedule an irrigation system from virtually any computer with a web browser.
- Biolock Keyless Fingerprint Lock (US$249 at Smarthome)
This system eliminates the need for keys. Rather, its optical biometric reader scans fingerprints that will be recognized and the door unlocked anytime that user places her finger on the optical sensor. Up to 99 users can be given access, and they can be deleted anytime.
- Wireless Security IP Camera ($99.99 at AARTech Canada)
This device has infrared LEDs that capture movement in absolute darkness and transmits high-quality video images that can be viewed from anywhere in the world via the Internet. It also has an option to send digital images via email when motion is detected.
- Powercost Monitor ($99.95)
This unit shows in real time how much energy your household is using. A sensor attaches to the electrical meter outside your house and transmits information to a counter-top display unit that shows usage information in kilowatt hours and dollars.
- FloodStop (starting at $399.9)
Here's a system that connects to a home's water supply and shuts it off once water comes into contact with wireless floor sensors. A built-in alarm notifies the owner by triggering the alarm system or dialling a phone number, saving people from the all the headache and cost associated with water damage.
Of course, if you have trouble using the remote for your digital TV or get frustrated when your computer freezes, a smart home might not be for you.