Gadgets evolving from the Clapper to 'Smart' Home

Sarawak Tribune - Tuesday 30 July 2002

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After two decades of hype about "smart" homes with computerized brains that control lights, stoves and stereos, "The Clapper" still rules the living room. You know the Clapper. You clap your hands and the lights turn on. You clap your hands. The lights turn off. It's sold on television, over the Web and in drugstores and hardware stores -- for less than a one-month bill for Internet access. Soon, though, the Clapper is going to get some upscale competition.

The home of the future, according to Microsoft Corp., features a kitchen that reads recipes aloud and a keyless front door that opens using gee-whiz biometric technology. But the software giant's showcase house bears little resemblance to today's average abode, and would require an owner that is about as rich as Bill Gates .

So, while Microsoft focuses on its vision of how we'll one day live, San Francisco-based Joseph Enterprises Inc. is still the world beater with its the low-tech Clapper that has a steady stream of sales. And, in these dog days of shrinking corporate revenues, that's nothing to sneeze at.


Moving forward from the Clapper era, Universal Electronics Inc., the Cypress, Calif.-based maker of the popular "One for All" remote controls that aim to replace numerous other controllers, is now offering what may be a more realistic view of what's next on the "smart" home front. Universal Electronics' technology is far more sophisticated than that used by the maker of The Clapper, but one Universal Electronics executive says the two companies have at least one goal in common.

"What strikes home with The Clapper is that it's easy. That's good. We're all about making the home easier," Universal Electronics President Robert Lilleness said. To that end, Silicon Valley icon Hewlett-Packard Co. this month started selling Universal Electronics' Nevo universal wireless control software on its new personal digital assistant iPAQ Pocket PC. 

Universal Electronics executives say the addition of Nevo gives iPAQ users what they need to easily operate more than 20 different kinds of devices -- from televisions to DVD players to fans -- via the same hand-held computer that helps them keep track of telephone numbers and appointments.

They're also positioning Nevo as the platform that will, at some future date, enable people to do such things as lower the temperature on their oven to prevent a roasting chicken from becoming a lump of charcoal while they're stuck in rush-hour traffic. "Nevo is a first step," said Universal Electronics' Chief Executive Paul Arling. "What they're trying to do is make this stuff friendlier for people to use," Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle said.

That's no small task. Universal remotes -- which cost anywhere from $10 to $1,500 -- are often hard to pro gram and use. On top of that, it can take hours to plug in all the information a person would need to run various devices. Universal Electronics also is attacking on the price front. 

The new iPAQ costs around $400, about the same as the Pronto, a competing universal remote from Philips Electronics , Enderle said. The Philips product is not a PDA but is instead a computer-driven remote control.

While the new generation of remote controls are not yet cheap enough for the masses, their price tags do represent a big step down when compared with high-end prod from companies such as Marantz Home Entertainment.

Enderle -- who lives in a home where curtains are drawn, lights are operated and temperature is automatically managed -said Universal Electronics also appears to solve one problem of the remote control television era: Users of the iPAQ system can back up of their information on a computer.

The critical problem though is make the to make the technology easy-to-use and understand, so it doesn't just remain the domain of the technology elite. Joked Enderle: "I have 14 remote controls that sit on the counter and a spouse that doesn't know how to use them."

And if the new technology doesn't catch on, there is still The Clapper. It may not be rocket science, but the $20 gadget already is in millions of homes because it works with a variety of low-watt appliances many people already own and operates in a way most people can quickly understand. "My mother's had hers for 15 years," said Michael Hirsch, vice president at Joseph Enterprises -- which also sells the Chia Pet. "We use technology in the best way we can to make an affordable product that people want," Hirsch said.

During a visit last week to Pacific Grove, she found the perfect opportunity. Venturing out early one morning, she placed "The Wake of the Whale" on top of a whale sculpture in front of the natural history museum. She returned a few hours later to find it gone. She is now hooked.

Oakland resident Chris Pankey, a former pilot who manages a personnel firm, chose a trip to Hawaii to release three books. A work on Amelia Earhart was left in the airport. Judy Hardin of Oakland, who works for a San Francisco book publisher, recalls the thrill of releasing her first book.

The title was "The Killing of History." The location was Pac Bell Park. Hardin recently went public with another book, "Who Killed Homer." It was left on a bus. "By setting books free, you put these powerful ideas into the hands of others," she said. "And, it feels good, kind of anti-establishment."