Imagine walking through your front door, tapping a single button and, in a blink, the lights brighten, your favorite music cues and your heating system revs up. Or how about this: You're watching a movie, the doorbell rings and without lifting a finger the film pauses and the front porch light flicks on. Totally Jetsonesque, right?
For those of us still fumbling with four remote controls for one entertainment system, the future isn't here yet. But homes with a mind of their own are swiftly becoming more mainstream, says Adam Smith, owner of Audio Obsessions Inc. of Albany and a representative for Control 4, makers of home automation products.
"This is the direction everything is going," says Smith, who will be one of nearly 500 exhibitors showing off the latest trends in residential technology, home design, construction, landscaping and financing at the 27th annual Great Northeast Home Show on Friday through Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Empire State Plaza and Times Union Center in Albany.
Setting up a "smart home" isn't just for techie gurus or nerds, says Smith. "It really is about making life easy and convenient." According to Smith, who will demonstrate this technology at the show, a package is typically priced from $599 for the basics.
"People out there that can afford to buy 50-inch plasma TV are definitely going to be able to afford this stuff," says Smith.
New home builders are already taking advantage of the new technologies, which realistically can run into tens of thousands of dollars depending on the complexity of the system. According to a recent survey conducted by Lowes home improvement stores, a majority of builders -- nearly two in three of the 1,000 surveyed -- say they already construct homes with an eye on "smart home" technology.
The convenience of controlling everything in a home with the touch of a finger isn't the only hot home tech trend.
Ed Pacuk, owner of Creative Kitchens of Glenmont Ltd., will be showing off the latest in kitchen and bath design, which he says centers on one concept, functionality.
"Ten years ago people were trying to impress the Joneses," says Pacuk. "Now people are taking a much more analytical approach with how to best utilize the space."
Like the trend toward smart home design, people are looking for sleek kitchen appliances that offer convenience and ease of use. Built-in coffee centers like those made by Miele, which not only grind beans, but brew individual cups of coffee, cappuccinos and lattes, are gaining in popularity. Under-the-counter refrigerators, traditionally used for wine storage, are becoming a cool place to store just about anything.
And built-in, stand-alone microwaves, like The Insight Pro Microwave Drawer by Sharp, placed just below the countertops, not only free-up space, but allow little ones easy access. Some even come with a cooktop.
"There are more and more specialty appliances out there that cater to peoples' individual lifestyle," says Pacuk.
Products that play on individual preferences extend well beyond appliances. Pella Windows and Doors is expanding their Designer Series to include not only between-the-glass blinds, but fabric shades, grills, decorative panels and more.
If you have a penchant for rustic design, you can incorporate fossilized leaves into window panes. If Asian decor is more your thing, then grass stalks between the glass might be intriguing. And in five years, if you decide you just can't stand peering through blades of grass any longer, you can change it.
According to Steven Stiansen, general manager of Crawford Door & Window Sales in Rensselaer, these windows offer plenty of light without sacrificing privacy. Some folks are even incorporating these designs into their entryway doors. Even better, he says, "You get the energy efficiency, plus you get fashion."
Shannon Fromma can be reached at 454-5479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
27th Annual Great Northeast Home Show
When: 4-9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11.
Where: Empire State Plaza and the Times Union Center, Albany.
Details: Called the longest running home show in the Northeast, the home show features more than 500 home improvement vendors from builders and interior designers to landscape artists and home loan lenders. Seminars will be presented by local and regional experts on cooking, technology for the home, finances and more.
Highlights: Show visitors can register to win the Pella Window and Door Makeover provided by Crawford Door & Window Sales. The Pella Window and Door Makeover offers the winner a complete home makeover of doors and windows valued at $20,000. Patrons can register at the Times Union Center box office lobby at the show.
Tickets: Admission is $8 for adults; children 14 and younger are free when accompanied by an adult. Patrons can receive $2 off the cost of admission with a Price Chopper AdvantEdge Card or Times Union Source Card.
Parking: For security reasons, all patrons are advised to bring a valid photo I.D. to park in the Empire State Plaza parking garages.
Adam Smith doesn't want to take the blame for young adults with car stereo systems loud enough to shake neighborhood windows. At Audio Obsessions the focus is on good sound reproduction, not simply volume.
Whether it's rap artist 50 Cent or pop-jazz singer Norah Jones on the stereo, the goal is to have the music take you to another place, Smith said.
How good is your car stereo system? Here's a quick test: Close your eyes and listen to the music. If it's easy to locate the position of the speakers, the system could benefit from an upgrade. In a well designed car stereo system, the music should sound like it's coming from in front of the driver, where the stage would be in a live performance.
If prospective customers want to see and hear the latest in mobile technology, Smith shows off his own car, which features top-tier audio, video and security systems. In Smith's Nissan Murano, the mix is classic rock, adult contemporary and "some not so annoying rap."
"We've got OutKast, we're hip," he said.
Smith, 29, has always been good with electronics. His first car was his introduction to car stereos, and he quickly discovered his hobby could support him. He worked as an installer at other local car stereo shops while getting a degree in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Smith started Audio Obsessions in 1997, making custom speaker cabinets. His initial start-up costs were about $1,000 for woodworking tools and $35 for registering the business name. He sold the enclosures by word-of-mouth referrals and installed them in the outer parking lot at Crossgates Mall in Guilderland.
In April 1998, Smith moved the business into its first building. Three moves later, Audio Obsessions is tucked away in a building off Central Avenue in Colonie. The location is a compromise, trading visibility for lower rent.
These days, the store doesn't build many stereo cabinets because the mass produced boxes have improved in quality and dropped in price. Car stereo systems are 60 percent of the business, but video and computer technologies are rapidly gaining market share. About 25 percent of sales are remote car starters. Security systems account for 10 percent, and the remaining 5 percent is rear passenger entertainment, including video and gaming systems.
People have more electronics in their cars because they are used to having more gadgets at home and on the move, said Mark Pettograsso, owner
of East Coast Audio Concepts in East Greenbush. People walk around with cell phones and laptops and might listen to music on MP-3 players instead of CDs. Local radio stations are facing competition from satellite radio systems, with which a consumer could drive across the country listening to the same station.
Changing technologies are changing the customer mix for auto electronics retailers. Rear passenger entertainment systems, featuring headset televisions, DVD players and sometimes game systems, have an average ticket price of about $1,200. It's a significant investment, but it will keep the kids happy on those 10-hour trips to Florida, Smith said.
East Coast Audio has kept sales up during the slower economic climate by working with local car dealers. When customers purchase aftermarket entertainment systems at the same time as a new car, the total cost can often be rolled into the car payment, Pettograsso said.
Planning for the future of the business means keeping up with new technologies. Smith is keeping an eye on in-car computer systems and the growth of the market for hybrid cars. But the key challenge for Audio Obsessions is competing with Internet and big-box retailers.
The store has to offer competitive prices, because consumers can always look up the going price on the Internet, but instead of focusing on price, Smith focuses on value. He carries and sells specialty products for a niche market and provides top-notch customer service.
If something goes wrong with a product, we don't tell the customer to call the manufacturer, we call them, he said. Excellent customer service pays off in new business. When the store is busy, one customer will often walk another customer through the car stereo options, Smith said.
"I've got a couple hundred sales guys out there, just doing some networking for me," he said.
In addition to product knowledge and customer service, running a successful business requires attention to detail and good management skills, Smith said. Setting up good systems for things like sales tax and payroll makes sure that a business doesn't run into trouble as it grows.
Audio Obsessions turned its first profit last year, netting about $50,000 on sales of $540,000, and sales are up almost 50 percent this year. Over the next five years, Smith would like to grow the company from six employees to 10 and buy a small plaza to house the store and bring in additional revenue.