The Healthy, Hip High-Tech Home

Today's decked-out domiciles are big on gear that helps you get a good night's sleep, keep the germs away, and stay fit

Peter Bils has a bone to pick with Big Pharma. Drug companies generate some $2 billion a year from sales of prescription pills designed to help people get a good night's sleep. As an executive at the biggest U.S. bed retailer, Bils reckons that what many folks need isn't medication, but—you guessed it—a better bed. "Pharmaceutical [companies] are looking to regulate your sleep and wake cycles with pills," says Bils, who's chairman of the sleep advisory board of Select Comfort. "All it really takes is improving your sleep in the first place."

Which is why Minneapolis' Select Comfort (SCSS) adds controllers and air chambers that let users set personalized comfort levels for their side of the bed. And using recent research that shows people need seven cycles of sleep for the best rest, the maker of the Sleep Number bed is investigating new products that would help regulate those rhythms with natural sleep aids like lighting control and watches that calculate a body's high and low points during the day.

Piecing Together the Digital Home

Select Comforts' efforts reflect a push by makers of high-tech products to create living environments that are practical—and good for you. Sure, many consumers crave the in-home theater and surround sound system that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Just ask Darryl Plummer, chief of research at IT consultancy Gartner (IT), who delights in his Atlanta home. It boasts a theater with voice-activated lights, a computer network that links more than a dozen PCs, and myriad other tools that control everything from door locks to lawn sprinklers.

But Plummer's home is the exception, not the rule. While electronics makers have held out visions of the digital home for decades, Plummer estimates about 2% of U.S. homes even approach his configuration. And though prices have tumbled for such digital home must-haves as wide-screen TVs, tricked-out entertainment systems remain too, well, tricky. "I have a digital home but I have had to work hard to make it that way and keep it that way," Plummer says.

So while electronics makers may salivate over the thought of an over-the-top entertainment center in every home, they're also focused on more practical products that can be incorporated one piece at a time. "The technologies of today are not 'digital home,' but a collection of digital products," Plummer says.

Think of it as the digital home for the rest of us: These domiciles boast technology that helps you sleep when you go to bed and gizmos that get you moving when you get up the next day. The gadgets promote healthier living, and many are affordable, yet designed with panache.

Home Is Where the Health Is

One of the biggest areas of research explores the science of comfort. Companies such as Logitech International (LOGI) and Microsoft (MSFT) spend millions trying to make mice and keyboards that are more ergonomically friendly. Now other companies want to expand such offerings into every room of the house. Select Comfort targets the more than 70 million people nationwide who, according to the National Institutes of Health, may be affected by sleep troubles. The company also hopes to woo some of the more than 48 million people who regularly use Sanofi-Aventis' (SNY) Ambien, Sepracor's (SEPR) Lunesta, and other prescription sleep aids.

Indeed, well-being is swiftly becoming a key consideration in home-tech purchases. So companies have plenty of cause to emphasize the health benefits of their technology, in part because women are playing a bigger role in tech purchasing—and, according to marketing experts, women are more likely to consider the health implications of what they buy.

A study published in May by the Internet Home Alliance found women do 68% of the shopping for the home, and about 68% buy an appliance or consumer electronics item with their spouse or on their own. "It's clear…that the respondents were thinking about their respective families and daily lives first, and then imagining how technology could fit into the daily rhythms of those lives," says Genevieve Bell, a consumer researcher at chipmaker Intel (INTC), one of the study's backers.

For many, keeping the home germ-free is paramount. IOGEAR, a maker of computer accessories, cites a University of Arizona study that found the average desk harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat. So it devised a wireless mouse coated with titanium oxide and silver nanoparticles, which IOGEAR says attract and react with water and oxygen molecules to give off free oxygen ions that help continuously disinfect the mouse's surface. The $40 IOGEAR mouse is among a bevy of peace-of-mind tech products; others include trash cans that automatically open and close or sweep up dirt so you don't have to.

Other companies are coming up with innovative ways to capitalize on the desire of consumers to live healthy lives. Game maker Nintendo has succeeded in attracting more casual gamers in part through brain-training and aerobic software paired with its Wii and DS consoles. The International Sports Sciences Assn. in February endorsed the Wii as a way to help an increasingly overweight population, particularly in developed nations, get a workout while having fun.

Apple (AAPL) and Nike (NKE) teamed up to cater to that same impulse last year by releasing a Nike + iPod Sport Kit that lets you track a run and listen to music at the same time.

Working Together

As useful as these individual products may be on their own, imagine their potential if they worked in concert. With U.S. broadband penetration expected to top the 50% mark this year, Bay Area startups 4HomeMedia and Pie Home are working on software that could help installers, consumer electronics makers, and retailers navigate the myriad of different networking products and standards to manage devices in the home more effectively.

If such software gains traction, consumers would be able to use a PC or cell phone to log into their home to adjust lights and heat, monitor comings and goings, and gain access to stored media. The Web also would be used to keep devices up-to-date with the latest software and remotely diagnose trouble. "The market is starting to happen," says Brad Kayton, 4HomeMedia's vice-president of marketing.

He's right—but it has taken time. Four years ago, Sony (SNE), Intel, Nokia (NOK), Microsoft, and a dozen other companies formed the Digital Living Network Alliance in hopes of creating standards for the variety of home digital devices. The effort is bearing fruit; a growing number of devices have features that make them compatible with other products, without forcing the user to install software drivers.

Cooperation like that, electronics makers hope, will speed adoption of digital home technology far and wide. And maybe then, more of us will get a better night's sleep.

Click here to see a slide show of tech products for a healthy home.

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