Watch Your Home Remotely With Affordable New Tools
New tools let you keep an eye on your home away from home, via your office PC.

Ever wondered what your kids or pets do while you're at the office? Wish you could monitor your home's security, or check for flooding in the basement from afar? Now you can--and without having to invest a lot of time or money.

PC-based systems for controlling household utilities and security have been around for several years. Until recently, however, even simple setups cost as much as $5000 if built into a new home; a more elaborate installation retrofitted into an existing house or apartment could run $50,000. And those systems were unlikely to offer any access via Web-enabled devices.

But a new generation of products promises at least some Internet functionality at far more affordable prices. We tried one of the first, Xanboo's Internet Home Management System, which costs $150, plus $10 monthly for a Xanboo account. This initial low-cost version (we looked at a shipping unit) is limited to performing security functions, but the company plans to add optional household controls.

Pictures and Sound via the Web

The basic Internet Home Management System consists of a controller that connects to a PC via USB; a color video camera with built-in microphone and motion and audio detectors; a 60-foot camera cable; and software to control the works. Additional cameras cost $50 each; wireless sensor modules for sound, water, or doors and windows go for $20 each. A single controller supports up to four cameras and as many as eight sensors.

To use the system, you must sign up for the Xanboo account, which lets you check the status of things at home through a personalized page on Xanboo's Web site. New modules that allow users to turn lights on and off, open and close garage doors, and control air conditioning--all from the same Web site--are slated to appear in August.

Setup, including registering online, took only 10 minutes. The individual pieces worked well. But while most of the sensors communicate wirelessly, the all-important camera module must be hooked up to the controller using the included thick cable. This makes installation more of a chore. However, wireless cameras are also due in August.

Once installed, the camera's motion detector transmits a still image or a 10-second video clip to the PC and, from there, to Xanboo's site, whenever a movement triggers a response. Users choose how they're notified: by e-mail, text-messaging cell phone, pager, or wireless PDA.

Other products for remote control via the Web are in the works. For example, IBM and Carrier Corporation have jointly developed an air conditioning system that lets subscribers change thermostat settings or turn the air conditioner on or off via a Web site called The system, which is being tested in Europe, can even alert a repair service when a malfunction occurs. In this country, Seattle's Puget Sound Energy and several other utilities are experimenting with systems that let customers adjust their thermostats via the Internet.

More to Come

Belkin, a company best known for its printer and network cables, already offers a line of SignalPoint infrared controllers for audio and video systems; the company has introduced cameras for security monitoring, as well. MyCasa Network, meanwhile, is seeking a distribution partner for a line of products designed to use home power-line networking to allow control of household appliances over the Web.

The promise of controlling your house from afar via the Web is certainly appealing, and when these products mature, they'll help you save money by reining in high utility bills. Security-conscious homeowners may even find Xanboo a worthwhile investment now. But I think I'll trust Fido to behave himself without a Webcam.

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