The first "smart homes" years ago usually were from-the-ground-up -- that is, new constructions with computers and gadgets built into their walls. However, a new kind of home-monitoring market is developing as a wider array of devices are introduced that monitor energy use, track comings and goings of residents, and turn off forgotten appliances and faucets.
"The idea of electronic controls for the home is definitely growing," said Bill Ablondi, director-home systems for market researcher Parks Associates.
That's due in part to marketing. Eaton Corp.'s Home Heartbeat launched its first ad campaign this holiday season to coincide with the product's availability at Best Buy. The print, radio and billboard ads were created by Sterling Advertising, Pittsburgh.
Home monitoring is relatively new to industrial manufacturer Eaton, but the company decided to enter the market after an extensive "innovation exercise" where it asked consumers what they wanted in their homes, said Joanne Edwards, business-unit manager in the residential division at Eaton.
What they wanted, she said, was to "know what's going on at home" when they're not there. The new ads also followed an aggressive public-relations push last year aided by Mullen PR in Pittsburgh. Since the latest campaign, traffic has tripled to the company's website, said Home Heartbeat Product Manager Carlos Quimbo.
Eaton isn't alone in trying to convert growing interest to sales. Microsoft recently rolled out its Windows Home Server, a consumer server to control home networks and systems accessible by remote PC, and said home-automation products are coming soon from partners.
Peripherals maker Logitech last month bought WiLife, maker of PC-based remote video-monitoring systems, for $24 million and plans to build out its digital home and video portfolio. Logitech plans to market the product line under its own brand name.
"Our video customers tell us that while connecting with friends and family is the primary reason why they purchase a Logitech webcam, many are very interested in an easy solution for self-monitoring their home or business or the well-being of an elderly parent living far away," said Junien Labrousse, exec VP of Logitech's Products Group. Mr. Ablondi said an executive from WiLife told him recently that a "good number" of their customers buy the cameras just to watch their pets from work.
Combine the lure of being able to remotely track everything from your curling iron to your latchkey kid with the ability to curb energy use -- and then nudge it all along with a little marketing -- and some observers believe the home-monitoring industry could be poised for a breakout.
"We estimate 5% to 8% growth per year, which isn't exploding," Mr. Ablondi said. "But we think a couple of things could happen to speed that up." Those things include more co-marketing deals between manufacturers and service providers such as phone and cable companies and/or an aggressive push by a market mover such as General Electric.
The tech trend with the most potential to fuel home automation is the growth of home networks. By the end of 2007, 35% of households will have a home network, according to research firm In-Stat. While those networks are mainly used only to share web access, consumers are interested in adding home automation, said analyst Joyce Putscher.
In-Stat research recently found that the number of households that will connect home-automation systems to their computers will triple in the next four years.
"All this stuff doesn't happen overnight," Ms. Putscher said. "Products have to be available at Home Depot or Wal-Mart and other big places like that. ... And it needs to get more marketing and advertising."