News & Politics

Technology at Home: A Really Smart House

This family can shut off the kitchen lights from a computer, check on the laundry from upstairs, start a pot of coffee from abroad.

The light switches in Jeff Hollingsworth’s house in Bethesda don’t necessarily match up with the lights. Flip a switch and you never know what you’ll get.

Turn on a laptop, though, and you can control all the lighting from anywhere in the house—or from the other side of the world. Same with the coffeepot, TV, and stereo system.

No matter where he is, Hollingsworth, a University of Maryland computer-science professor, can tell if his security system is on or the garage door is open. There’s a sensor in the washing machine so he and his wife, Petrina, can know from the top floor if the wash is done in the basement.

It takes a lot of wiring to make a “wireless” house. Not to mention to confound your wife, amuse your friends, and outwit your tech-savvy three-year-old.

By fourth grade in Los Angeles, Jeff Hollingsworth was assembling flashlights, batteries, and extension cords so classmates could send Morse-code messages.

At age 11, his speech/drama class was assigned to teach something. One girl demonstrated makeup application. “I brought in a box of electrical parts and cords to show—should you want to rewire the lights in your house—here’s how you do it.” His classmates’ reaction? Silence.

“I have great empathy, in retrospect, for my teachers,” he says.

In 1991, few people even knew what e-mail was. As a graduate student in Wisconsin, Hollingsworth hooked up a floor lamp so it flashed every time his computer received a message.

In the early days of home wireless technology, a friend of his used to say that you could turn on Hollingsworth’s coffeemaker from anywhere via the Internet but not from the coffeemaker itself. “But that was primitive,” Hollingsworth says.

Now the 40-year-old has a tenured position, marriage to a high-school friend, a toddler, and a four-bedroom house to play with. All those bugs have been ironed out—almost. Just ask Petrina.

“When we first wired everything, we had a TV remote that was numbered sequentially to correspond to all the electronics,” she says. “I was watching TV and used that remote to mute the set—and turned off all the lights in the house. We don’t use that system anymore.”

The Hollingsworths have rigged up ten telephones as an internal intercom. “Jeff was away when the phone system died. I had exactly one phone that could reach the outside,” says Petrina, a nonprofit editor.

Not long ago, Jeff was in an online discussion with the theme, “How did you sell this to your spouse?” He wrote, “That was easy: Petrina said, ‘It was really handy when I was pregnant and on bed rest.’ ”

His wife says it started earlier: “Ever see the movie Demon Seed?” In this horror flick, an omniscient computer traps a woman in her home until she bears its child. “I had visions of all the gadgets in that stupid movie. He had told me, ‘Just think—I can change this, I can control that.’ ” She was wary.

“Years later, I was home alone and the lights flickered—they’d go on, they’d go off—and then he called from Venezuela: ‘Hey, did the lights go off? I wanted to see if I could do it from here.’

“I said, ‘Don’t do that!’ ”

Throwing a party at the Hollingsworths’ is easy: Invite everyone to potluck, buzz guests in the front door, set all the lights to “after-dinner mode,” and click a laptop for endless musical entertainment. Five hundred albums are stored as MP3s on a server and play through the stereo.

“We could set up the oven to start dinner ahead of time,” Jeff says, “but I’ve been afraid to wire any appliance that might burn the house down.”

When friends come over, Petrina says, there are two ways to show them around: “the nerd tour or the ‘oh, what a lovely house’ tour. With him, you spend 20 minutes in the laundry room—that’s where the server is. With me, you’ll be lucky to see the laundry room.”

Most of what’s there is off-the-shelf technology, he says. The stereo system, for example, uses Turtle Beach AudioTron—“like an iPod on steroids.” The only piece custom-built is the washing-machine monitor.

A product called HomeSeer handles all electronics except the phone. Jeff has rigged it to display a personalized TV guide on his laptop: Click on a show’s name and, if the time is right, the show comes on the television. “Petrina and Jeff’s Household Page” also includes an icon called “Bethesda weather,” linked to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Web site.

“It’s not that hard to do,” Jeff says of all this technology. “It’s just that most people don’t do it or don’t know about it.”

Actually, it was hard to do. What took longest was replacing some 20 wall switches over three years. Jeff put in 2,000 feet of wiring: “Several friends wanted to network their houses, so after we moved in, I said, ‘Come on over and I’ll show you how to do it.’ We had a rewire-the-house party.”

Son Nate has never known another way. Remote controls and old laptops are his toys. The internally linked phones are programmed so people have to dial 9 for an outside line. This annoys Petrina, but “it keeps Nate from dialing out much.”

The boy is particularly fond of the single control for all the lights. More than once he’s crawled into his parents’ bed at 5 am, hit the button, and giggled at the results. All lights have a preset level; in his room it’s set as a night-light.

The automation system keeps an activity log, which could be a bit creepy: From abroad, Jeff can see that Petrina closed the garage door at 9 pm and shut down the house at 11. Nate’s mother says, “In 12 years he’ll have a curfew, and he’ll say, ‘I was here!’ And we’ll say, ‘No, you weren’t!’ ”

Meanwhile, Petrina is concerned that Nate will think all houses are like this: “I worry that he won’t know what light switches are for.”

He can master that along with reading and irony. On the countertop lies a magazine: Real Simple.