Closer to the Remote-Controlled Home
By Burt Helm
The prospect of "Big Brother" is frightening to most. That is, of course, unless you get to be Big Brother. A small company in Palo Alto, Calif., called iControl Networks, on Feb. 14 will unveil a new Internet-based service that allows people to monitor their homes remotely.
The new service, which will get its first public test drive at the DEMO tech-industry confab in Scottsdale, Ariz., allows people to view live feeds from surveillance cameras and motion sensors on their own homes. They'll also be able to adjust thermostats that have been outfitted with special wireless Internet technologies and turn lights on or off.
All the homeowner needs is a PC, a personal digital assistant, or even a cell phone. "Essentially, it will let you be somewhere when you're not." says Reza Raji, chief executive of iControl and one of its three founders. "This is a product to let people manage a second home, a small business, or their kids."
The iControl starter kit, which includes a camera, a motion sensor, a lamp module, a door/window sensor, and a key-chain remote, will cost around $399, with a monthly subscription fee of $9.95.
It'll be intriguing to see how the marketplace greets this do-it-yourself, monitor-yourself security system because Internet service providers will have to act as a channel for the services. Raji says iControl has plans to do a market trial with a "household-name" ISP, though he wouldn't name it.
There's no doubt companies like iControl that depend on high-capacity Internet connections have a much greater chance to make a go of it today than they did a few years ago. By yearend, about 38% of American households are expected to have broadband Internet access, according to Forrester Research. Moreover, most analysts figure that of the people now connecting to the Net, the majority are doing so with broadband rather than dial-up services. This shift has happened just within the last year.
Analysts figure that consumers are ready to take advantage of so-called broadband peripherals as service providers start pushing them in an attempt to make up for deep discounting to basic services.
iControl's founders hope they have one of those peripherals the ISPs will depend on. The 12-employee company was started two-and-a-half years ago by Chris Stevens, former president of home audio company Harman/Kardon; Raji, a former engineer and director of business development at computer-networking company Echelon (ELON ), and Gerry Gutt, a software architect also from Echelon.
iControl plans to include a huge number of add-ons, including the Wi-Fi thermostat, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and emergency pendants for elderly or ailing people who live alone. When a button on the pendant is pressed, it will automatically send a text message or e-mail alert. "It's 'I've fallen, and I can't get up,' taken to a whole new level," says Raji.
This is how the system works: A customer sets up the motion detectors, cameras, or other add-ons in the house. The devices are then connected to an iControl box. That box, through the customer's usual Internet connection, automatically uploads all the data to iControl's servers. This allows the customer to access data via the Web without tinkering with any of the electronics in the house.
Most intriguing is the "automation," feature, which lets people coordinate motion sensors with the cameras or other devices. When a door opens, for instance, the camera can snap a picture of whoever enters. iControl automatically text-messages an alert to the owner's cell phone, to say the door has opened.
Consumers will no doubt have questions about security. If a hacker taps into an iControl account, will he be able to make the temperature in the house suddenly freezing? Or turn the lights off and on at will? Or cause a false alarm to be sent? iControl execs say they've built in good security to keep ne'er-do-wells out, but it will certainly be a juicy target for them.
Of course, whether the public has such an appetite for self-monitoring is the biggest question of all.
Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York