The consumer electronics industry has talked about home automation since low-cost microcontrollers first appeared on the market a few decades ago. While most of us still envision home automation looking like a scene from 'The Jetsons' -- the 1960s futuristic cartoon where dinner and clean clothes were just a push-of-a-button away -- savvy entrepreneurs are looking for practical ways to make today's homes more comfortable, energy-efficient, and safe. A key missing ingredient, however, has been a technology for networking large numbers of sensors and controllers freely distributed around the home.
A home automation network technology should be flexible, easy to deploy, and easy to use. It should be able to relay sensor data and controller commands in a timely, reliable, and (when necessary) secure fashion. And it should enable devices that are small, inexpensive, and consume minimal power. Ideally, it should be wireless, support ad hoc and mesh networking, and enable devices that can run for years off a small battery. ZigBee, a solution ten years in the making, meets all of these requirements.
ZigBee supports up to 64,000 devices on a single network. The latest standard supports both a basic feature set (ZigBee) and an enhanced feature set (ZigBee PRO). The latter permits self-powered devices as well as devices that can harvest energy from their surroundings using the optional ZigBee "Green Power" feature. Recognizing that key applications often have very different requirements, the ZigBee Alliance has also developed more detailed standards for specific applications such as smart energy, remote controls, and health monitoring.
Better than Infrared
However, technical capabilities and detailed standards alone do not guarantee success. ZigBee has made substantial progress in recent years: It's been quietly integrated in TV remote controls and set top boxes. That puts ZigBee firmly in the hands of consumers and in a popular device that is strategically positioned to talk to both home automation networks and the Internet.
The emergence of ZigBee-based TV remote controls is a fairly big deal. Until recently, virtually all remote controls used infrared communications due to its simplicity, low cost, and good battery life. However, infrared has some major disadvantages. Infrared requires line of sight access and must be pointed at the target device. Low-cost infrared remotes can send but not receive data. Consequently, there is no way to command a misplaced infrared remote control to emit an audible signal.
Thanks to ZigBee's digital radio technology, infrared is no longer the obvious choice for remote controls. ZigBee-based remote controls do not require line of sight access; the target device may be placed inside a cabinet or even controlled from an adjacent room. ZigBee-based remote controls can receive as well as send: They can be placed in "find me" mode when misplaced, receive and display messages, and perform other tasks requiring two-way communications. According to the ZigBee Alliance, ZigBee-based remote controls deliver longer battery life than infrared-based remote controls. (continued...)