It was during the construction of his dream home that John Geiwitz decided to launch a manufacturing firm that focused on residential technology.
It began simply enough: he wanted a “goodnight” button that, when activated, would adjust the climate control system, lock the doors, close the garage, arm the security system, and perform a number of other tasks. When he bid those specifications out to residential systems providers, he was informed that such technology would cost him upwards of $70,000. Geiwitz, a former Intel executive who now serves as the president of Smart Systems Technologies, decided to build the product himself.
One of the first things he addressed was how technology interacted. “Essentially, there was no cooperation between components,” he said. “For instance, security companies interfacing with heating and air conditioning so that when you leave the house your thermostat automatically sets back.
Having the lighting control systems self adjust so that when you come home to a dark house, pathway lights turn on automatically as you get near the stairs after it’s dark. Those types of applications we’re all familiar with, but all of the individual systems and components were exactly that–they were individual and needed to be interfaced together, but there was no sophisticated or elegant way to do it affordably.”
Geiwitz began developing what would eventually become em*power; an embedded central controller designed to oversee energy management, lighting control, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, appliance and outlet control, security and multi-room audio control. Users interact with the system via an icon-driven touchscreen. Fashioned with a Smart Key Reader, the system treats each user individually: while one user may have complete access to all of the system’s functions, another may only have the capability of activating specific features. em*power’s price point is between $3,500-$5,000 installed.
em*power’s design is based on an open architecture to accommodate the different standards that are out there, Geiwitz explained. “The lack of standards presented us with a number of challenges during development.
Security companies tend to do things their own way, and heating and air conditioning companies tend to have three or four different standards that they use. Trying to find a way to take one system like the em*power system that encompasses all of these disciplines and have it interface with different air conditioner products might be challenging because they might have different approaches to how they operate with thermostats.”
The system is modular, facilitating alterations and upgrades, according to Geiwitz. “If you run up against a challenge with protocol, you simply address that through our system with a flashcard–the same exact flashcard that you would use in a digital camera–which is a very inexpensive way of adjusting the system to run any protocol that is adopted today.”
There were a number of reasons for making em*power easily upgradeable. “The mortgage on a home lasts 15-30 years. How are we going to embed technology in that investment and expect people to deal with the fact that they are embedding something into a 15-30 year project that is going to become obsolete in 15-18 months? This is the challenge,” Geiwitz said. “Over the generations of product development we have realized that the product must be 100 percent upgradeable and scalable as new technologies come about, as consumers change their patterns and their desires for what they want the systems to do. The biggest challenge that we had was coming up with an architecture that would support longevity in the installation without the consumer having to replace everything at regular intervals.”
Keith Ostwald, Smart Systems’ director of marketing and deployment, touted em*power’s user-friendliness. “The development process was part and parcel of taking all of those functions so that anybody, without picking up a manual, can walk up to the system and start making changes,” he said. “In this case instead of using a mouse, you use your finger. You point and click on icons just like you would in any operating system.”
Technology for the home must be user-friendly in order for consumers to buy it. “Consumers will not adopt technology in their homes at the same rate they adopt it in their offices and in their cars,” Geiwitz declared. “I call it the ‘blinking 12’ syndrome. It’s the reason that very technical people–people who are very capable of programming their VCRs–will live with a blinking 12 in their living rooms. We get home. We have dealt with technology on our belt–Palm Pilots, cell phones–in our offices, and even in our cars. You get home and it’s your last refuge. I’m an electric engineer and I run into the same mindset. When I get home, I don’t want to think. I want it to be covert and interactive. That is one of the things that we have learned in the development of our products over the years: just because we can invent it doesn’t mean we should.”
As homeowners seek ways of conserving energy, it becomes increasingly important for residential technology developers to address this in their products. em*power, Geiwitz said, has already accomplished this. “There is a need for consumers to be able to control how they budget and use electricity,” he noted. “Even when you’re in your car you’ve got a fuel gauge. Why don’t you have a fuel gauge in your home so you can see how you are using electricity? Today you get a bill in the mail and you see that you should have turned off the lights or adjusted the air conditioning. What the em*power system offers is the ability to budget and control how you use electricity, and have your house react to different situations.”
For more information, contact Smart Systems Technologies at 800.458.4266 or 505.837.9600, or by visiting www.smartsystemstech.com.
Carolyn Heinze ([email protected]) works from her media services firm in Vancouver, Canada.