Intel, partner team up on home automation

Intel is teaming up with a wireless control network vendor so consumers can control lights, thermostats and other devices through the same interface they use for wireless entertainment gear.

Intel has signed a business agreement with the vendor, Zensys, to make that company's Z-Wave low-speed, low-power network gear work with the Universal Plug-n-Play (UPNP) specification. UPNP is designed to make it easy for devices to find each other and start communicating without user intervention. Intel has been a major backer of the specification.

The two companies will develop software that serves as a bridge between Zensys and UPNP. Their vision is that from one user interface on a multimedia PC, personal digital assistant (PDA) or handheld remote-control device, consumers will be able to control entertainment gear as well as many other devices and settings throughout the house.

Zensys hoped this capability would be commercially available by the end of next year, vice-president of marketing at Zensys, Mike Dodge, said. Intel sees networks of digital home entertainment devices, communicating without wires, as a major technology trend. It joined with Zensys in order to integrate more things in the home into that system, senior manager of strategic investments at Intel, Jon Gelsey, said.

With UPNP capability throughout the entertainment devices and home appliances, a consumer could set up a DVD to play on a digital projector, and turn out the lights and lower electric window blinds using a PDA, according to Dodge.

The same PDA - or other types of controllers - might control the temperature, the garage door opener, security cameras and sensors and an alarm system.

Although the home entertainment devices would be connected by other, higher-bandwidth wireless networks, UPNP could unite the various networks behind a single interface, Dodge said.

The bridge software will be the key to integrating the Z-Wave network with UPNP, he said.

To begin with, the software probably would run on a PC, which would interact with the Z-Wave network through an adapter device connected via Universal Serial Bus (USB), Gelsey said.

A Z-Wave chip also could be integrated into the PC or a residential gateway box, Dodge said.

The technology can link as many as 264 Z-Wave-enabled devices and adapters in a mesh network along with a controller, such as a handheld remote, that sends out commands. In addition to receiving commands, the chip in each adapter can act as a relay to extend the range of the network.

This mesh technology makes it easy to set up and allows for lower power consumption and a low-cost chip, Dodge said.

The chips cost about $US5 each in quantities of 100,000, he said.

Zensys is based in Copenhagen. Z-Wave products were introduced in Denmark in 2000 and the first such products hit the market in the US last year.

Home automation vendors such as Intermatic use Zensys chips in products that are sold through home improvement retailers. Z-Wave starter kits with a controller and two dimming lamp adapters that plug into conventional wall sockets were priced starting at $79, Dodge said.

By the end of next year a new version of Zensys' chip should be on the market that would drive prices lower, he said.

The networks communicate via radio at 908.4MHz in the U.S. and 868MHz in Europe, both unlicensed bands. Maximum bandwidth was just 9.6K bps (bits per second) but was adequate for the commands sent over the network, Dodge said.

Two other relatively low-power wireless networks, Bluetooth and Zigbee, had more capacity but also higher costs and greater power consumption, and the user couldn't extend their range using mesh technology, Dodge said. Bluetooth and Zigbee both were overpowered for what Z-Wave does, Intel's Gelsey said.

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