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Digital Living Center is a new way of shopping for the smart home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

CompUSA?s new Digital Living Center, which just opened inside the CompUSA store at 721 North Central Expressway (I-75 and Plano Parkway), is the first-ever one-stop shop for the smart home. Not only does the showroom display the latest home gadgetry to see and touch, design consultants are available from 11 am to 7 pm to demonstrate the technology and help customers design custom packages to smarten up their homes, whether new or existing residences. Then once the buyer makes a purchase, the retailer sends out technicians to install the equipment and teach the user how to work the devices. And when something goes wrong, homeowners can call Design Living Center for technicians to make repairs.

This is the first one,? said CompUSA president, Larry Mondry. ?But it?s been successful enough to the building trade in the first few weeks, that we are planning on others that are under construction already.?

?I think that it?s incredibly bright and timely idea to have a place like CompUSA Living Center, where customers can go and look at structured wire networks, which is really just the wire,? said Randy Luther, vice president of Construction Technology at Centex Homes. ?They can look at satellite systems, at televisions, surround sound systems or complete home theaters, computers and printers and fax machines and modems and everything that they would need in one place. We?ve known about it (Digital Living Center) in the industry, at least from my prospective, probably for at least 6 to 8 months. There?s been a lot of discussion inside the home electronics industry about the need. It?s been one of the biggest barriers not to have one-stop shopping and a company who could actually, not only sell you equipment but put the equipment in for you and service it. So, within the industry, it?s been a huge need.?

?Our current state is that if something goes wrong, I don?t know who to call,? Luther said. ?We?re having this growing gap of which doctor to call to fix the problem. I think customers now call their computer company; and they run them through some diagnostics over the phone, and they say it?s not a computer problem. And then they have to call maybe the telephone company or their modem supplier and have them come out. It?s very frustrating and time consuming, and the customers are lacking confidence that they can get problems taken care of when they arise.?

?Currently, about 40% of all new homes built in the US (and at Centex) have structured wire systems,? Luther said. ?A structured wire system is really a local area network that most of us enjoy at work that enhances the ability for broadband access to the world wide web and allows computers in the home to share peripherals (printers and files) and those kinds of things.? This means if your kids have computers and you have one, too, you need only one printer that could be shared between all the computers and one set of files downloaded in the computer system. Plus, all the computers have independent access to the Internet. Besides the structured wire systems, a much larger percentage of new homes have enhanced entertainment features such as home theaters and surround sound.

?But one of the biggest barriers that we?ve had, as a builder and I think it?s affected to what degree customers are comfortable with these features, has been the lack of any place where builders could comfortably send their homeowners to look at the features and talk to someone that?s knowledgeable,? said Luther.

?We have design people just like a furniture store,? Mondry said. ?You go to the right kind of place, they?ll come out to your home and build a schematic for you?exactly the same. But in the area of technology, frankly, people are intimidated. It?s not that they don?t know the answers. Half the time, they don?t know the questions.?

?Most of the consumers that want this already have a house and don?t know how to apply it (the technology) to an existing home,? said Digital Living design consultant Cico Silva. ?Everything in this showroom, you can do in an existing home, and I?ll show you how. There are new products that weren?t available a year ago; now we can take a regular phone jack and turn it into a high-speed Internet jack. So, in the whole house, without tearing out walls or rewiring with network cables, we can have basically structural cabling, which is what we show to new homebuilders.?

?Right now, we?re seeing new houses wired to a certain degree, and we?re finding that a lot of buyers are very, very technology oriented,? said president of Ebby Halliday Realtors, Mary Frances Burleson. ?It may not be the deciding factor today in buying a house or not. But we?re finding more and more clients asking for properties that have DSL?s or what is accessible.?

?I think the homeowners need to be tuned-in,? Burleson said. ?This is not just to put a house on the market that?s for sale. If you?re going to live there, go ahead and invest. It may make your life a lot easier, simpler, and make you more connected.?

?We read all about this technology; but often times, what does that do for me,? Mondry said. ?We wanted to give people an opportunity to see what it does for me in practice. Some of the things are quite reasonably priced; some of the things are quite pricey.?

?Our goal is basically to be an integrator,? Silva said. ?An integrator is a partner or subcontractor to the builder, who is going to do the wiring to the house. What we do is low voltage. The electrician does the light fixtures and all that. And all the other wire is what we do. On top of that we put in all the components, the speakers, receivers, TV?s, all the fun, fancy high-end products or the basic simple products.? Customers can choose as little as a simple phone cable pre-wired all the way up to a fully automated, complete control package. It starts around $14,000-$15,000, not including wiring because that?s based on the schematics of the house, compared to the $65,000 to $75, 000 price tag that most vendors have shown such products.

In essence, the smart home has arrived, and it?s available at different levels of smartness based on the complexity of the network connection center models that homeowners purchase. Other components in the system include the control section (flat screen TV, web tablet, or your computer), and the software housed in a server. By the way, while you?re shopping, take a moment, just for fun, to check out the biometric lock, a door lock that reads fingerprints. It?s on sale for $900 down from $1,175.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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