Smart Phone, Smart Houses On the National Mall, a group of college students have brought to life the home-automation technology Microsoft has been researching for years.
NPR logo Smart Phone, Smart Houses

Smart Phone, Smart Houses

Team California's iPhone app helps homeowners monitor electricity, water and weather conditions. Courtesy of Allison Kopf/Santa Clara University hide caption

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Courtesy of Allison Kopf/Santa Clara University

Corey McCalla, a student team leader, demonstrates the iPhone apps that controls Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus. Ryan Gibbons/NPR hide caption

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Ryan Gibbons/NPR

The idea of a "smart home" has been around for decades. Just ask Microsoft which, since 1994, has had a laboratory home in which lights and appliances are controlled remotely through smartphones. The ideas have never quite made it into the mainstream, though.

But right by the U.S. Capitol, 20 universities have sprung up small-scale homes they hope might be used in the near future. It's for the 2009 Solar Decathlon, in which teams compete for the most energy-efficient homes. Three of the competing teams have integrated home control panels and smartphone capabilities to help them achieve those goals Microsoft has been hawking for decades.

Joe Wheeler, faculty advisor to the Virginia Tech "Lumenhaus" design team, recruited students from VT's computer science department to develop an app that displays how much energy is being used. The approach with the app, Wheeler says, is part of "envisioning the future" and what Wheeler calls "responsive architecture."

When the public tours the house during the next three weeks, student team leader Corey McCalla will demonstrate how the app shows energy levels of the house. From the iPhone, the user can turn off lights to reduce energy usage. The same goes for water use. Press the water gauge button to view average daily, weekly and monthly water use.

The apps can also perform other basic controls in the house, such as rotating walls, if you want to make more living room space for your guests, turn up the music, or open windows for cross-ventilation. Several of the teams' apps display wind direction and current temperatures — a digital weather vane of sorts.

Team California said they wanted to use the iPhone for practical purposes, as a way to make their house more accessible to people who already use smart phones. And they designed it with ease of use in mind. Allison Kopf, a student project manager for Team California, said they created the iPhone app because "nearly everyone now has, or will have a smart phone." Using the app on their home, you can adjust and monitor lighting, water consumption, windows, shades, entertainment and the HVAC system.

Ohio State doesn't actually have a phone-specific app. Rather, the control panel interface is compatible with any smartphone. Homeowners of OSU's model will be able to view a 3-D rendering of the house on their smartphone to pinpoint which parts of the house they want to control.

The students say creating an app — or at least making it viewable on a phone — puts the homeowner in control. And they hope the easy accessibility helps homeowners improve energy usage habits if they can view statistics from their smart phones.

But why hasn't there already been a mass-market app for at least turning on and off the air conditioning in a home? For setting our lights on a timer while on vacation? Why wait for a smart house to get a smart app? Microsoft has been testing this for some time, but research from the Connected Home Market Study found that "mass market consumers have almost no interest in using 'technology' for home 'automation' or 'control.'"

VT's Wheeler says he thinks home automation technology is late to the market, because the public is intimidated by it.

"I say, what about your sunroof? That's powered by a motor," Wheeler says. "You're not afraid of that. People have grown accustomed to sunroofs. They'll get accustomed to this, too." That, and there's the issue that older homes aren't hardwired with the technology to run off an iPhone app.

But the young "decathletes" are hoping the exponential increase in smart phones will help homeowners engage in their households in a way never done before.

The accessibility doesn't come cheap, but it's affordable. The homes have internal control panels, and OSU student Lucas Dixon said making the system viewable on a smart phone doesn't cost a whole lot more. Dixon estimated OSU's control system at around $10,000 to install in a home that will cost around $260,000 on the market.