ZigBee Key to Jetsons-style Living

Market research firm West Technology Research Solutions reported today
that the still-emerging ZigBee wireless standard will dominate inter-house communications by 2008.

The ZigBee open-standard protocol provides for wireless machine-to-machine communications at low power and low cost. It uses the IEEE’s 802.15.4 standard for short-distanced wireless networks, also know as personal area networks, PANs or WPANs. IEEE 802.15.1 and .2 are known as Bluetooth, while 802.15.3a is ultra-wideband (UWB) . ZigBee has a radio frequency range of 30 to 225 feet and uses very little power, and the chipsets are expected to be about half as expensive as they are now.

“You and your house and garden will be communicating by phone, cell phone and PC,” principal analyst Kirsten West told internetnews.com. “You will be in full control of access monitoring, heating and cooling for individual rooms, moisture and noise sensors. You could find out which room or area your kids are in. You could monitor the front door and be able to remotely unlock it to let in your second cousin who arrived a day early for his visit.”

This sci-fi scenario is based on West’s analysis of the technology, markets, regulations, standards, patents and OEM participation in embedded computing applications. West said that ZigBee should have most impact in the home, rather than in manufacturing or retail. The chips will automate home devices including light switches, fire and smoke detectors, thermostats, appliances, video and audio remote controls, landscaping, and security systems. West estimates that annual shipments for ZigBee chipsets for home automation will exceed 339 million units and continue to grow rapidly. Her assumptions are based on 4 percent global GDP growth.

West said ZigBee would beat out the X10 and infrared technologies that are used in home automation today. Unlike the one-way infrared commonly used for remote controls, ZigBee doesn’t need a line of sight to communicate; signals could even travel through a door. She said X10 has a 0.7 second delay, which can feel like a long time when you’re turning out a light.

There’s another huge advantage to ZigBee: It can form a mesh network. A toaster, television set, garage door and lawn sprinkler could join together in an ad hoc network that could pass along signals from a controller device. Depending on how manufacturers configure the chips, West said, “You could just buy all these products, and all of a sudden they all talk to each other.”

Today’s ZigBee chips are approximately 7mm by 7mm, the size of a pea, and cost $3 in volume. West forecasts that by 2008, they’ll be jus 3mm by 3mm and cost $1.75 each.

Industry titans are waking up to home networking. Earlier this month, Japanese consumer electronics manufacturer Sanyo Electronics announced DarWIN, a system that lets consumers control home devices from washing machines to security systems from one touch pad. Both Microsoft
and Intel have said they’ll devote money and resources to networking computers with consumer electronics such as TVs and stereos. One company Intel funded is Zensys, provider of ZigBee chip sets, development kits and engineering services.

West said she believes technology such as Microsoft’s Windows Media Connect and Sanyo’s DarWIN appliances will link with ZigBee devices.

“That major OEMs are working on this shows that the necessary infrastructure is developing,” she said.

Such link-ups could give new meaning to the phrase, “My computer is toast.”

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