Installations: The Home of Tomorrow is Here!

For years, Bill Gates' burning desire to take over your living room has been the butt of innumerable disdainful jokes. And there is something absurd about the idea of having the same PC that crashes just as you're about to finish a 30-minute download control your house. But the Xbox 360 is no joke - not as a game console, a DVD player, or as a Media Center extender. Neither are the latest Media Center Edition PCs, like HP's home theater-friendly z556 Digital Entertainment Center - winner of an Editors' Choice Award (see page 46). And neither is Vista, the freshly minted latest version of Windows, which comes with some powerful home-automation tools.

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But with companies like Crestron, AMX, and Elan offering a variety of sophisticated, high-end home-control systems, why would you want to put your PC in charge? Three words: "plug 'n' play." Imagine configuring a whole-house rig as easily as you set up your home-office computer. Jack a printer, camera, or other peripheral into a USB port, and the PC immediately puts it at your service. Most proprietary custom-install systems, on the other hand, require extensive programming. And adding a device that's not from that system's manufacturer often means having the installer write a driver, which can be a long, expensive, and potentially hit-and-miss process.

Columbus, Ohio-based start-up Exceptional Innovation wants to radically redefine home automation by offering a completely plug 'n' play solution that runs off Media Center Edition PCs. No more having PCs in the home office and the kids' room and audio and video servers in the home theater - your computers handle everything. No more marathon sessions to get everything up and running. (And no more dealing with separate teams of custom installers and IT guys.) Add a device to the network from anywhere in the house, and EI's Lifeware software recognizes it and welcomes it aboard, making it a full-fledged member of the family.

Think of Lifeware as the iPod writ large. It wasn't the player itself that made the 'Pod such a phenomenal success, but its carefully conceived and executed infrastructure. The hardest thing about using an iPod is finding the right port to plug it into. Once your computer knows the player's there, it fires up iTunes and immediately sends all the stored music tracks over to the 'Pod. Add more tracks to iTunes and, the next time you plug in the player, everything is instantly updated. After you've experienced that kind of ease of use, it's hard to have much patience with more elaborate, complicated, and limited control systems.

To achieve iPod-like convenience and flexibility, Lifeware uses a protocol called Web Services for Devices (the kind of awkward, vaguely Germanic name only a computer engineer could love). Simply put, WSD allows everything to talk to everything else, as long as it's part of the home network. It doesn't matter if it's a plasma TV or a security camera or a thermostat or a laptop PC - it just needs to be Lifeware-compatible. And because your network is also on the Web, you can use a VPN (virtual private network) connection to tap into your home system from any Windows XP computer anywhere to check on the house, make adjustments to the system, and feed it new content.

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