ZigBee Spins The Carousel of Progress Forward
By Mark Frauenfelder, Thu Feb 19 12:45:00 GMT 2004

Futurists looking for progress in home automation listen up: Wireless technology may generate just the kickstart your waiting for.


Home automation has been a staple of futurists for decades. Anyone who went to Disneyland in the '70s remembers G.E.'s Carousel of Progress, which Walt Disney designed for the World's Fair in New York City in 1964 (and which was later installed in Tomorrowland). The Carousel of Progress was designed like a big pie. Audiences sat in one of four pie-shaped wedges (each wedge seating 250 people) while a central hub with four different stages -- on which American living rooms from past decades were recreated -- rotated 90-degrees between scenes.

These living rooms were populated by an animatronic family who talked about how wonderful their modern conveniences were. The family from the 1890s gushed about their gramophone, telephone, and gaslights. The '20s family boasted about having a refrigerator and an electric sewing machine. The '40s family was pleased as all get out to have a little black and white TV, and the family of the futuristic 80s had an electrically heated patio and was pleased to have succeeded in getting rid of the grandparents who'd been in the other scenes. (Mother: "You're probably wondering what happened to Grandma and Grandpa. Well, they're no longer with us. They have their own home now in a community for senior citizens.")

The part that really grabbed me was the description of the home automation:

Mother: "Home entertainment for our family is centered in one area. And from here we can enjoy radio, hi-fi, and stereo music anywhere in our home. We can even change our lighting to match the mood of the music."

Father: "Our television console is more than just a TV set. It has a built-in video tape recorder..."

Mother: "Now we can record our favorite shows for viewing at a more convenient hour."

This was what I wanted! It sounded so... Jetsonian. I've always wanted a house where doors open and shut automatically, where TVs emerge from slots in the ceiling, where chairs pop up from holes in the floor, and where robots prepare and serve the meals.

In reality, our homes aren't very automated. The closest we've come so far is the X-10 home automation system, which has been around for 25 years, but hasn't really broken out. Why not? After all, X-10 can do some cool things -- unlock doors at certain times, monitor the weather, adjust lighting. There are two problems with X-10 that have kept it from really taking off. One, it doesn't offer two-way communication -- X-10 devices can only receive information from a central PC, not report back to it (there are ways to get around this, but it really isn't baked into the X-10 network architecture). And two, X-10 isn't wireless. It uses your existing home electrical system to send pulses that activate the devices. So you always have to plug an X-10 module into a wall. Bummer.

So when Wi-Fi and Bluetooth came along, people naturally looked to them as a replacement for the clunky, outdated X-10 system. But neither of these technologies is ideal for home automation. You really don't need the bandwidth (and consequential power-consumption) of Wi-Fi, or even Bluetooth for that matter, to monitor the moisture level of your vegetable garden. What you need is a tiny, cheap, low-power wireless device that's only job is to send or receive a few bits of data now and then. That's why ZigBee was created. Designed for home, building, and industrial automation, ZigBee, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, is a catchy buzzword for an ungainly sounding wireless standard -- in this case, IEEE 802.15.4.

ZigBee, which operates at 2.4-GHz, is two-way so it'll be able to log your house's electric, water, gas usage, and send it to your computer for analysis. (That way, you'll have documented evidence next time you yell at your kids for leaving the lights on.) Because ZigBee has a range of only about 30 feet, and sends data in infrequent bursts, batteries could last for a couple of years without having to replace them. Light switch and thermostat manufacturers have joined the ZigBee alliance, along with the usual suspects, such as Philips, Motorola, Intel, and Hewlett-Packard.

A recent analyst report issued by West Technology Research Solutions estimates that by 2008 "annual shipments for ZigBee chipsets into the home automation segment alone will exceed 339 million units," and will show up in "light switches, fire and smoke detectors, thermostats, appliances in the kitchen, video and audio remote controls, landscaping, and security systems."

Soon, reality may catch up with the Carousel of Progress. I'm looking forward to the day my house is buzzing with dozens of cheerful ZigBees as I ride my Segway around the living room signing the theme song from "The Carousel of Progress:

"There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow / Shining at the end of every day / There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow / And tomorrow's just a dream away!"