Case Study: Makeovers That Matter

Integrator Silicon East takes on an extreme challenge to bring home automation to a local family in need

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Even in the land of extreme, some makeovers are more extreme than others.
New Jersey integrator Silicon East naturally was thrilled when its longtime business partner, The Pinnacle Companies, a local construction firm for which it has handled numerous home integration projects, asked it to participate over the summer in a special episode of ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

The challenge: Outfit a new home for the Llanes family of Bergenfield, N.J., not only with intelligent automation systems, but also with the latest in accessibility and assistive technology for its disabled family members. Quickly, the solution provider found itself at the center of its largest project to date—one that it would be forced to complete in less than one-fifth of the time it normally would schedule for such an undertaking.

"When you are really out at the leading edge of doing this, you really are out in unchartered waters. There's no question that this stuff is not just plug and play," said Silicon East President Marc Harrison, who assumed the role of general contractor for the project after it was clear the show's producers needed more guidance. "I recognized that if someone didn't do it, there was no way [we] could have pulled this together in the week." As it was, the tech buildout was orchestrated by Harrison and his volunteers in the span of about three days, with several hours of sleep snatched here and there when exhaustion set in.

With its natural cedar shakes outside and Asian aesthetic inside, which includes a water wall in the entrance hallway that keeps the house properly humidified, the Llanes' new house is an interior designer's dream. It also is a gadgetphile's fantasy. The entire three-story structure, including its solar panels, is linked through an automation system from Home Automated Living (HAL) that can be controlled via voice commands. The system can handle basic tasks, such as regulating the heat or air conditioning; monitoring the security cameras and appliances; turning on and off the lights; and controlling the automatic blinds.

The latter two tasks take on special significance for the Llanes household. That's because four of the six family members—father Vic, his mother Isabel and his daughters Carrie and Guenivir—suffer from a degenerative eye disease called anaridia. As they are exposed to light, individuals who suffer from this condition eventually go blind. Vic and his mother already have lost their vision completely, while the girls are considered legally blind. The HAL system lets the two other family members, mother Maria and son Zeb, maintain the ambient lighting at levels suitable for Carrie and Guenivir's eyes that will minimize damage. It also can be used as a sort of signaling system: That's because although Zeb hasn't been afflicted with anaridia, he has been deaf from birth.

"We could say, 'Turn on Zeb's bedroom light for five seconds.' It really beats having to go upstairs to call him; it is not like we can just shout his name," Vic said.

He continued: "Another matter is the thermostat control, which people with sight take for granted. With the home automation, I can do it myself and with confidence that I have adjusted it to the exact setting I want. I used to count or even just guess how many up arrows or down arrows."

One of the hardest tasks for Silicon East to accomplish was hooking the home automation system into the solar panels from BP Solar, Harrison said. Even though there was no previous middleware linking the two, Silicon East found a way to provide data regarding the ambient environment back to the system monitoring the panels. On days when solar energy is powering the house more efficiently, the system can communicate back to the Llanes' utility company, reducing their electric bills.

Three access points from SonicWall provide the home with a wireless network, as well as an interface back to Silicon East's headquarters in Manalapan, N.J., through which the solution provider can monitor the status of all the devices in the home. The whole system is connected to the outside world with Verizon's "fibre to the home" service, providing 30-Mbps Internet access, which most of the family members surf using Hewlett-Packard notebooks.

That access is a huge boon for Zeb and his sisters, who freely admit they are "bandwidth-crazy." Zeb, who is interested in a career as a game developer and already has experience building custom PCs, said his skill with technology helps level the playing field. He spends much of his free time playing games online with his Xbox 360, which was personally signed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. (Microsoft took a deep interest in the project and even flew Zeb out to the Microsoft campus so he could scout career possibilities.) Outdated circuit boards cover the walls of his room and are part of his desk workstation, where multiple Viiv-enabled Media Centers reside and are accessed with a mass-multiple monitor.

"Playing online, my disability becomes a nonissue, and I can just have fun without worrying if I get accepted or not," Zeb wrote, via e-mail, explaining why he loves the new high-tech home.

Eighth-grader Carrie and college sophomore Guenivir are equally as sanguine about the wealth of accessibility technology that has been donated or loaned to them through an arrangement orchestrated by Microsoft and the National Federation of the Blind—not only helping them more easily navigate the Web, but also the real world.

Guenivir's visual deterioration is more advanced, which means she can only see magnified shapes and bright colors, like the bright sunset painted on her wall.

Among the devices the girls use are several products from HumanWare, including Trekker Pro, a GPS system that attaches to a handheld PC; Braillant, a portable braille display that connects to a PC; MyReader, a low-vision auto reader; and VoiceNote mPower, which facilitates word processing, helps browse the Internet and reads books.

"The portable devices allow me to be efficient in college and in traveling independently," Guenivir said. "It makes the outside world so much more accessible to me."

Carrie, an origami afficionado whose new room reflects her hobby, dotes on QuickLook, a portable magnifier from Ash Technologies that makes it easier for her to read things like product labels.

For Vic, a proficient technologist even before the makeover project who regularly uses several Kurzweil text-to-speech products, one of the coolest new additions to his home is iCommunicator, sold by PPR. The software, which translates text or speech into sign language, helps Zeb communicate more easily with his father and sisters. Until now, Maria, who is coping with thyroid cancer, has had to serve as Zeb's interpreter for the rest of the family.

The only member of the household who apparently hasn't quickly adapted to the new environment is Vic's mother Isabel. "Changes are somewhat hard for her, and we have to teach her where things are and also take her from here to there," he said. "When I was starting my family, she was ever supportive in so many ways. Now, we want to reciprocate in whatever way we can."

The price tag for all of this technology is about $100,000, and the integration services that went into putting it all together are easily worth another $50,000, Harrison said. Numerous high-tech vendors stepped up to help the Silicon East team with support and donations for the makeover, including BP Solar, Home Automated Living, Intel, Microsoft and SonicWall. It is fitting, perhaps, that when Microsoft presented Silicon East with its first-ever Partner Community Service Award in July, the $25,000 donation it gave to Marc Harrison went to, an organization with which Vic volunteers.

Despite the accolades, Silicon East doesn't plan a push into accessibility technology projects: Harrison said there are plenty of solution providers with which he can partner in that regard. Still, the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" experience likely will result in some new ventures for his company and its partner, Pinnacle. "The thing that this showed me is that home automation technology is really mature enough now to do this more broadly," Harrison said.

Recounting the "reveal" stage of the project, when the family "saw" the house for the first time, Harrison wrote in an e-mail: "[Vic] dropped to his hands and knees and slowly traced and felt the individual stones with his fingers, until he understood what was there. And then he did the same with the garage door and the cedar shakes and the outside molding and basically everything he encountered." The phrase stenciled on the wall in Vic's basement workroom seems particularly apt: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

Via e-mail, Maria Llanes shares the same wonder not just about the more practical aspect of the new home but about the technology that has changed the entire family's life view. "One [thing] that stands out is my happiness for Vic and the children for all the helpful stuff they've received that will make their lives a little easier. ... I can honestly say that a substantial chunk of the burden has been lifted from me in lots of different ways. We are just hanging tough until the bustle of the makeover blows over, and then we would like to concentrate on learning the communicating software as a family so that we can support Zeb more efficiently not just here at home but also outside. That will truly have a positive impact on me."

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