Automated Avatar Is Home’s Personal Electronic Greeter

Say hello to home control in this high-tech palace, circa 2006.


The real treat is how you’re greeted when you step into the entryway. You’ll find it’s not such a strange place for a plasma monitor, after all. Photo by Tom Henscheid.

Editor’s Note: This profile of one of our classic Home of the Year winners originally ran in May of 2006. We’re highlighting past winners in anticipation of the May 2013 release of the new Home of the Year winners. You’ll want to check back in May, because the new winners are awesome.

What can you expect from an Electronic House Home of the Year grand prize winner? For starters, it has to be a great house—one whose occupants don’t like leaving and always look forward to returning. It must have innovative home technology. In fact, it should have high-tech conveniences throughout, including great audio and video; a home theater or two; lighting, heating and ventilation control; and quite likely, a control system that allows for easy operation of anything by anyone from anywhere.

Of course, all that has to enhance the owners’ lifestyle and not overwhelm the decor. The simpler and less obtrusive the better. Naturally, we received many Home of the Year entries detailing large homes—estates, really—with dozens of rooms and audio and video zones, hundreds of lighting fixtures and pages upon pages of electronics accoutrements. And these places were certainly impressive. Some even came with attendants who greet their occupants whenever they return to their sanctuaries.

We didn’t pick one of those as our grand prize winner. Our first Home of the Year isn’t some compound for the rich and famous. Our Home of the Year is a more modest 4,500 square feet in size. As far as we know, it does not sport a massive wine cellar or an entire entertainment wing or separate guest houses and pavilions and other over-the-top amenities. In many ways, you could say this house is much more average than some of the other homes we considered.

However, this home does have an attendant that will always greet you at the door. And this is what really separates this high-tech house from all the others. That’s because its home attendant is electronic.

Cleopatra’s Reign
When any member of this home’s family of five returns to the three-story, Seattle-area contemporary house, they receive a warm greeting. That comes from Cleopatra, an attractive and articulate presence who is employed at the house as an avatar, or an electronic personality.

Cleopatra appears on a 42-inch Panasonic plasma screen that faces the front door. She greets each resident by name and announces any events of interest that have occurred during the person’s absence, such as visitors, phone calls, voice mails, emails and deliveries. Displayed next to Cleopatra is a summary of other information, including who else is at home, pictures of recent visitors at the front door, home activity and alerts, the local weather forecast, stock market changes, even the national security level.

Cleopatra isn’t just a sentinel for the foyer, however. She can roam throughout the house, appearing on other screens and numerous wireless PC tablets. She announces visitors, provides information on any high winds in the area—the house sits on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound—and gives status reports on the home’s electronic systems. Microphones built into the home’s ceilings allow the family to interact with Cleopatra by requesting information and controlling any aspect of the house.

Cleopatra is the brainchild of homeowner Brian Conte, president of Fast Track, a company that produces “greeter” software for the home market. “I’m into technology, and with three kids, we wanted something easy to use and comfortable,” Brian says. “We wanted to keep track of the kids and make it friendly for them.” As the house was being built, a whole-house Motorola Premise home control system, a Russound audio distribution system, an HAI security system and an OnQ Home lighting system were put into place as well. There’s also a home theater and some video distribution. Much of the wiring runs behind removable baseboards for easy access.

Brian’s wife, Patti, needed some convincing to live in this high-tech residence. “I was a little skeptical about the whole notion of home automation,” she says. “I wasn’t sure what it could do for me that was truly useful, and I was worried that the ‘fuss factor’ would outweigh the benefits. So far it’s been pretty smooth because the focus has been to create useful, fuss-free features.”

“I really like the features that help with the kids,” Patti adds. “Our 3- and 5-year-old daughters tend to go to sleep relatively early, while our 8-year-old son is a big reader. Lots of evenings, I fall asleep reading to the girls. I’ve come to depend on Cleopatra to tell our son that it’s time to go to sleep if his light is still on at 9:45.” As if that’s not enough, during the morning rush, Cleopatra issues reminders about what time it is and lets the kids know they need to get in the car so they won’t be late for school.

“In effect, Cleopatra provides a home personality and a friendly interface to the home’s automation system,” Brian says. The Premise system operates over a home’s IP (Internet Protocol) network, much like a computer network used in office environments. That way, everything can operate off Microsoft Windows-based PCs. Motion sensors alert the system if someone is in a room or has approached the front door. Cleopatra even knows which family member has entered or departed by scanning tiny RFID (radio frequency identification) chips on their key fobs or other personal items as they pass the door.

The system monitors room occupancy, intelligently switching on and off the lights, music, and heating and ventilation systems when appropriate. It detects who is in bed and will turn off the lights, lower the shades, turn off the music and set the night alarm. The house will also wake up residents at requested times and provide them with weather forecasts and reminders of important appointments or events that day. “Patti’s favorite part is when she wakes up in the morning and the fire is already going downstairs,” Brian says.

“I especially like having the alarm system tied into it and it being so easy to use,” says Patti. “At our previous house, we hardly ever used the security system because it was such a hassle to set down the kids and their stuff, turn it on, rush to get out in 60 seconds and all that rigmarole. Now I just swipe my key fob as I leave, and if I’m the last person out, the system is automatically armed.”

Finger on the Music
If you think the home assistant and all that automation is cool, check out how the 18-zone whole-house audio system works. The kids don’t have to type or press anything. All they do is place a finger on a scanner that reads who it is and then allows easy access to their personal playlists. “The system knows their preferences,” Brian says.

The kids also have a common play area—with a real tree—and there’s a clubhouse on top of their rooms that’s accessible through trapdoors.

The entertainment systems throughout the house are fairly low-key, with a slew of in-wall SpeakerCraft speakers and a few hidden video projectors in the office and media room. “Everything we do is through the computer, even watching the DVDs [in the media room],” says Brian. In fact, the media room screen often doubles as a computer screen. A PC-based video server can record shows to a hard drive, record them to disc or play them through any of the other PCs in the home.

This futuristic house even has robots. There’s a Roomba robotic vacuum, a Scooba robotic floor sweeper and a robotic lawn mower. (We’d especially like to get one of those!) Not everything in this tricked-out home has run smoothly, however. Sensor pads installed to detect who was sleeping didn’t work reliably. So switches by the bed that Brian and Patti flick when they retire for the evening set the house to sleep mode. “And while we have had some luck with voice recognition software and querying and controlling the house with that, we are still working to improve the recognition rate, especially for the kids,” Brian says.

Unfortunately, there’s also a debate about the avatar’s good looks. “Cleopatra reminds me of Angelina Jolie,” Patti says. “I keep telling Brian that I would much rather have an avatar who brings Brad Pitt to mind. But he keeps telling me that is technically impossible.”

Check out more pictures of this home at the slideshow.

View Slideshow

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