Eye-Popping Home Entertainment

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I was too polite to ask "how much," but Steve Kirsch made a lot of money when InfoSeek, the company he founded, was purchased by Disney. Kirsch, along with his wife Michelle, has donated millions to charities through their Kirsch Foundation and they've also given a considerable amount of money to causes and candidates.

But, at least by most people's standards, they have also invested a great deal in their high tech home in the foothills of Silicon Valley.

Evidence of Kirsch's home technology investment greets you as soon as you drive through the automated gate and then again when you walk through the electrically secured front door. As one passes through the house, you can't help notice that motion sensors cause lights to turn on as you enter a room. Other areas of the house and grounds are lit automatically, depending on the time of day as well as the time of year - sunlight patterns do change, after all, according to season.

Kirsch's home office doesn't look all that different from most, except for a panel to the left of his computer that he can use to control his lights, audio system and video entertainment. The rest of his house, though larger and a bit more opulent than most, is neither overstated nor brimming with conspicuous technology, with the exception of two very large TVs.

However, if you look carefully, there are high tech controllers almost everywhere you go in addition to the out-of-site servers, satellite receivers and other techno-toys helping to make everything work together.

Kirsch's downstairs media room is a home theater with a front projection screen. Upstairs, adjacent to the kitchen is another large screen that Alexandra, his seven-year-old daughter, was watching the night I visited. "Daddy, can we fast forward?" she asked.

Obviously, this is a child raised in the era of personal video recorders (the Kirsch's have a ReplayTV system which is similar to a TiVO). As it turned out, she was watching live TV through one of the satellite receivers that happens to not be connected to the ReplayTV system, so daddy had to give her disappointing news.

When Michelle whisked Alexandra away for her bath, it was my turn to play with the remote. But this wasn't a regular remote. It was a handheld wireless LCD screen from AMX (www.amx.com) that not only controlled the TV, but the video and audio input source as well as the lights, climate and security system. I managed to startup the DVD with family photos that Michelle had just put together on her Mac. Other buttons brought up the satellite dish, VCR and other input sources.

The AMX remote is an integral part of the home entertainment, security and lighting system and it's certainly not the only one in the house. In fact, there are similar remotes built into the walls in some of the rooms and sitting on tables and desks in others. The remote allows Kirsch to select an entertainment source, while displaying helpful details such as pictures of album covers.

Whether wired or wireless, the remotes are used to send signals to a server in a closet in the downstairs media room. That server helps to route TV and audio signals to various entertainment devices throughout the house. It also includes a music jukebox that stores the family's music collection on its built-in hard disk.

There's nothing unusual about people "ripping" CDs to PC hard disks, but this isn't a PC system. It's a standalone audio jukebox from Escient, similar to the company's current offering, the FireBall Digital Music Manager. The audio jukebox is billed as capable of managing both MP3 files and CDs, using an Ethernet connected server that can store up to 120 gigabytes of compressed or uncompressed media.

Just about every light in the Kirsch home is turned on and off or dimmed with technology from Vantage (www.vantagecontrols.com). The company makes a variety of control systems and modules that communicate either through a wired network or the company's wireless RadioLink system. Vantage also makes audio video and heating and air-conditioning control systems. Although Vantage makes its own remote controls, its systems also work with the Kirsch's AMX remotes.

Kirsch spent about $150,000 on his home entertainment and control system, which he started building four years ago, using top-of-the-line equipment.

Those top-of-the line vendors charged top dollar for their systems - and still do - but nowadays far less expensive options are available, although they may not be as elegantly integrated as Kirsch's system.

X10 makes a variety of fairly inexpensive controllers for lights, appliances and entertainment devices. There are wireless Video Sender systems from Radio Shack, Terk, X10 and other companies that can transmit video and audio signals from cable controllers, satellite receivers and personal video recorders to remote TV around the house. A number of companies - including Microsoft, Philips RCA and OpenPeak and are working on systems for transmitting media from PCs and Macs to remote TVs throughout the house.

Steve Kirsch is a leading edge guy willing and able to pay to stay ahead of the curve. But, much like George Jetson, you don't have to be wealthy to enjoy the wonders of a futuristic home. You just have to live in the 21st century.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."


By Larry Magid
  • Lauren Johnston

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