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iHeat, iLock, iCheck on Mom

The iPad gives new meaning to the idea of remote control.

It will soon be a piece of cake for Silicon Valley developer John M. Sobrato to attend a meeting at the office and let a repairman into his house at the exact same time. He recently installed a system at his new Los Gatos home that will allow him to use an app on his iPad or smartphone to control his door locks—and his lights, heating, stereo, and other household functions—from any Internet-connected location on Earth.

So while he’s sitting at his desk (or lounging on a beach in Thailand or trekking in the mountains of Nepal), he’ll be able to see the guy at his front door and unlock the door remotely with a tap on his keypad. Sobrato already has a similar system at his beach house in Capitola. The place is equipped with slow-acting radiant heat, so when he’s planning to head over, he turns the system on remotely so he doesn’t have to walk into a cold, dark house. If he forgets to turn it off when he leaves, not a problem: It’s just one more tap on the app.

“I couldn’t have done this six months ago,” he says. “The technology is changing so fast.” And it’s not just plutocrats like Sobrato (he’s on the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans) or tech millionaires who are using smartphones to automate their homes. True, systems like Sobrato’s can cost upward of $10,000. But as of last year, average folks have been paying Comcast $39.95 a month, plus a $99 installation fee, for similar technology that lets them control many of the same in-home functions. A more expensive tier offers even more options, and Comcast is already working on more sophisticated applications, such as a motion sensor that alerts you when your elderly parent hasn’t gotten out of bed in the morning or has fallen down the stairs.

In fact, according to Randy Stearns of Engineered Environments, every device in the home of the future will have an IP address, meaning that it can be on the network. Next up, printers will send an alert when your ink is low, and projectors will tell you when their lightbulb needs changing. Within three to five years, Stearns says, your fridge will send alerts when the milk expires, the pantry will tell you when you’re out of rice, and the dryer will email you when your clothes are ready.

Of course, there are limits to this don’t-lift-a-finger promise, as Sobrato points out. “A wired laundry room may sound cool, but it can’t move the clothes from the washer to the dryer for you.” That will be a job for your iPad controlled robot.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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