Monday, July 24, 2000
With Home Security Products, You Can Keep a
Watchful Eye Via Net
The other day, I saw someone knock on my
front door. Normally that wouldn't be a big deal, but I wasn't home at the
time. I was monitoring my front porch via the Internet.
The images were being transmitted from my
home PC and the $129 XrayVision Kit from X10 Wireless Technologies
(http://www.x10.com), a Seattle-based company that specializes in home
automation, control and security products.
The kit comes with the Xcam2 Video Camera
(the camera alone is $80), which weighs less than 4 ounces and is small
enough to be mounted almost anywhere. It gets its power from either an
electrical outlet or batteries, and it transmits its images and sound
wirelessly up to 100 feet using the same 2.4-gigahertz frequency used by
some high-end cordless phones.
The camera comes with a small base station
with connectors for either a TV set or the USB port of a PC. The TV set
connection allows you to monitor a room or part of your property from a
standard TV set. The PC interface makes it possible to send images over
If you connect it to a TV in your home, you
can both see live video and hear what's going on via the camera's built-in
microphone. In this configuration, the camera is not only a good way to
find out who's knocking at your door, but can also be used to monitor a
baby's room or any other part of the house or grounds that you want to
keep an eye on.
Unfortunately, the audio is one-way. It
would be nice if it also had audio input and a small speaker so you could
use it as an intercom.
If you wish to monitor multiple rooms, you
can purchase more than one camera and turn them on and off via remote
control so you can find out what is happening in different parts of the
house. I'm not a big fan of family espionage, but it is a way to find out
what your kids are up to. As a form of weight control, I'm tempted to
mount it facing my refrigerator so my wife can detect and interrupt my
The camera isn't nearly as robust when you
use it via the Internet. You don't get any sound and, instead of moving
video, you get a series of still pictures sent every few seconds. The only
way to view the images on a remote PC is for that machine to be running
special software that you can download for free from X10's Web site.
Another option is to have the camera send
pictures as e-mail attachments. You could, for example, have it e-mail you
a picture of a room in your house every few minutes so you could monitor
the room from work or wherever you happen to be. I suppose you could use
it to spy on a house cleaner or contractor at your house from your office
An endless stream of still images from an
empty room can be pretty useless. But the camera can also be configured to
send an image only when it detects motion, which could be a reasonably
good way to know if someone has been at your house or entered a room where
the camera is mounted. The company plans to enable the camera to display
images on a Web site, with optional password protection.
* * * Although it's been fun to play with, I
really don't have much use for the camera. If I want to know who's at my
front door, I'll go look, and I'm really not all that interested in
monitoring my house via the Internet. But X10 makes a number of lighting
and appliance control products that I find very useful.
The X10 home control system enables you to
turn lights and appliances on and off and dim lights without having to
install special wiring. The commands that determine how each lamp or
appliance will operate are transmitted through your home's electrical
Each lamp or appliance needs its own control
module, which costs about $13 each from the X10 Web site or Radio Shack
stores. Other modules include a motion sensor that can be configured to
turn on lights or sound an alarm, and special high-wattage modules for
controlling air-conditioners and heavy-duty appliances.
What I like about the system is that users
have options as to how they control their lights and appliances. For about
$20, plus the cost of individual lamp and appliance modules, you can buy a
device that lets you manually control lights and appliances from any room
in the house. Thirty dollars gets you a timer that sends signals to as
many as four devices at predetermined times. The timer has a
"security" feature that varies the times lights are turned on so
that anyone casing the place might think that someone is actually home.
For ultimate control, you can purchase the
ActiveHome Kit, starting at $49.99, which lets you use your PC to program
your electrical devices to create as complex a pattern as you wish, with
lights turning on and off at specified times. You can have it turn on the
coffeepot in the morning or turn off the TV at night.
Your PC doesn't have to be on for ActiveHome
to control your appliances. It comes with a programmable PC controller
that connects to a Windows PC via the serial port. Once it's programmed,
you can remove it from the PC until you need to change the programming.
The software lets you set up schedules for
different times of the year, as well as weekdays, weekends and vacation
settings to make the house look "lived in" while you're away.
You can even program it to turn radios or TVs on and off while you're away
so it sounds as if people are home. X10 doesn't make a Macintosh version,
but Always Thinking Inc. (http://www.alwaysthinking.com) offers a $39
program (Thinking Home) that lets you control X10 modules via the Mac.
You also get a wireless remote control that
controls electrical devices and serves as a wireless TV and VCR remote, so
you can turn on the TV, start videotape and dim the lights and turn on the
electric popcorn maker with the same hand-held device. You also get a
key-chain remote that you can use to turn on lights from the car, walkway
or apartment hallway.
As a promotion, the company will send you
its FireCracker Home Control Starter Kit for a $5.90 shipping charge. The
kit consists of a wireless remote receiver, a lamp module, a wireless
remote control and the "FireCracker" interface that plugs into a
PC's serial port and sends commands to receivers elsewhere in the house.
Using free software that you download from X10's Web site, you can use
your PC to turn lights and appliances on and off. Unlike the ActiveHome
kit, however, your PC and the software must be running for the system to
work. You can order it from http://www.x10.com/welcome/firecracker.
* * * Like any other technology, X10 does
have its downsides, or should I say "dark sides." Although you
can manually override controls, there are times when the system seems to
have a life of its own, as my wife discovered late one night when the
family room lights went out as she was trying to read her book.
* * * Recent PC Focus columns are available
Larry Magid can be reached at
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times