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programmable controls

A decade ago, the media was awash with pieces asking why the future, as dreamt up by magazines such as Popular Mechanix and Popular Science, hadn't come to fruition. I, too, remember wondering why I didn't use a jetpack or personal helicopter to travel to work or, at very least, why I couldn't switch my car over to autodrive so I could continue sleeping on the way. On the home front, I wondered why I couldn't laser-roast a turkey in five minutes or why I didn't have a robot maid.

The thing is, the future did arrive, but it came camouflaged in familiar forms. Some cars can park themselves, but they look like any other car; although the microwave itself hasn't changed, the kinds of things we cook in them has; and Mark Weenan can wire your home in such a way that it feels as if there is an artificial intelligence at work.

Not sure quite what to expect, I visited Mr. Weenan at a private home his company, Totally Wired, completed recently in Markham. As told to me later, when I rang the doorbell upon arrival, it triggered the telephone inside to ring and display "Door 1." While there was no closed-circuit camera trained on me at this particular home, Mr. Weenan explained that had the homeowner chosen that option, my mug would have appeared on one of the many touch-screens positioned all over the house.

"It's a lifestyle solution for this client," began Mr. Weenan as he demonstrated the touch-screen in the home office, which, like the others, controls lighting, audio, security and heating. "He knows what he likes, so when he goes to bed, for example, he knows he wants the pathway to his bedroom to illuminate for five minutes, his bedside table lamp to be turned on and have everything else in the house shut off." Even the intensity of the light can be dictated: "There's no limit to what you can do with these systems."

The "system" in this home, mostly, is manufactured by Colorado vNet, and the majority of its filing cabinet-sized girth and mess of spaghetti-like wiring hides in the basement (it can also be located in closets). However, the "Colorado" can take control of any other device that uses infrared (audio and television remotes), serial ports such as USB or RS-232, standard electrical outlets or Z-Wave technology.

In other words, music can be sent to any room-via hidden speakers that are plastered into the wall if desired-from a hard drive so large it'd take a lifetime to fill, or, alternately, the audio from a television newscast in the living room can be sent to the home office while checking email. Various levels of home security can be assigned, such as when the family is in-and-out on weekend afternoons or fully tucked in for the night; window blinds can be operated and so, too, can the gas fireplace: "We can have just the ember-bed come on for glowing effect," Mr. Weenan says with a smile. With no standard thermostats, all heating and cooling is controlled via the touch-screens, which are no more difficult to operate than the average cell phone: "If you can read, you can operate these systems," he says.

Situations unique to the homeowner can be programmed. For instance, this particular homeowner has blinds automated to allow houseplants to bathe in afternoon sunlight but then keep it at bay when the family is cooking dinner. Situations can be given user-created names: While watching a movie, hitting "Get a Beer" on a hand-held remote pauses the movie while a pathway to the fridge illuminates at 30 percent intensity (rather than a retina-roasting 100). When the desired beverage is in hand and the homeowner is back on the couch, hitting "Got a Beer" reverses everything. Rather finish the movie in bed? It can be sent up there, too: "If you can think of it, it's doable," says Mr. Weenan.

After a consultation and home walkthrough determines the extent of automation desired, Mr. Weenan's "tech guy" John will "script out" a program. While the homeowner retains control of daily functions such as heating/cooling or audio/video, major changes to scenarios such as "Get a Beer" must be re-programmed by Totally Wired. The decision to automate, then, is also the decision to begin a new relationship: "It's all about relationships," confirms Mr. Weenan.

Unfortunately, the variables involved make it difficult to discuss cost. When pressed (by me), Mr. Weenan says an entry-level, lighting-only system in a home theatre room might run $2000 and a whiz-bang automation of every system that can be controlled in a 15,000 sq. ft. mansion could approach a half-million or more. Obviously, it's far easier (and cheaper) to do an install at a home that's under construction or renovation, but there are ways to automate an existing home using wireless technology. The good news is that Totally Wired doesn't discriminate; they'll perform a task as small as hanging a flatscreen television or hooking up a new computer and printer.

While not exactly like what was predicted in the mid-twentieth century, the automated home of the twenty-first is indeed futuristic. It's just that with telephones, web-browsers and family photos now hanging from our belts, it has snuck up on us in ways that are instantly familiar.

"The Jetsons come home and they get their clothes changed," finishes Mr. Weenan, "and this homeowner comes home and has his lifestyle on one button."