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A do-it-yourself digital dream house

SAN JOSE, CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif. - Dave Fraser wanted a digital home, but not just for show.

So the Oakland resident remodeled his house two years ago with technology that could fit the non-geek lifestyle of his wife Ellen and their baby daughters Claire and Katie. The result is a home with some gee-whiz gear that entertains and simplifies life for a busy family without being intrusive.

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The couple has lived in the four-bedroom house on a hill with a view of the bay for six years. When they started remodeling, Fraser rewired it so that every room would have Ethernet cables for accessing the Internet at high speed, as well as cable TV and phone access. With that in place, Fraser spent about $15,000 on technology that made his home like something out of The Jetsons.

It might sound like a lot, but it was a lot cheaper than the $100,000 he could have paid a custom installer. And since tech gear is Fraser's hobby, he didn't mind spending hundreds of hours doing the makeover himself.

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"We wanted ubiquitous access to entertainment and communications in every room," he said. "It's not Blade Runner or Internet toasters, just what we can use."

Added Ellen Fraser, "When Dave was developing this, we had to decide what would be a pain to deal with. You don't see a lot of tech stuff around here."

The technology is well hidden. At the mailbox, an unseen sensor rings a chime over the house speakers when the mail arrives.

At the front door, a tiny Channel Vision video camera in the doorbell beams a picture to a wall-mounted TV display in the kitchen. In the kitchen, Ellen uses an older Pentium II IBM Thinkpad laptop to connect to the Internet via a digital subscriber line, which gives her high-speed access over a phone line.

There is no office PC. The TV display can also show video on different channels of the kids sleeping in rooms upstairs.

At the touch of a button

On the walls are some unobtrusive controls that look like heating controls. But the control pads let the Frasers manipulate the lighting in different rooms and select MP3 music tracks to play in any room.

With one touch, they can pick lullaby or party music playlists that will emanate from speakers hidden within the walls in different rooms, select preset lighting for moods like "cooking" or "entertaining," check the security system or adjust the heater.

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The sound system accesses 5,000 MP3 tracks (which replaced a collection of 600 CDs) stored on a hard drive hidden in a basement alcove, thus keeping the living room from overcrowded with stereo equipment.

There is a manual override for every device in case something goes wrong with the system.

Fraser can also control things from his laptop or with an Axim X5 handheld computer from Dell that is connected to a WiFi access point in the kitchen. The wireless Internet technology lets Fraser add new devices without cluttering up the house with wires.

In the living room, there is a 32-inch TV hooked to a DirecTV satellite dish and a TiVo digital video recorder in the basement alcove. They can watch TV or listen to CDs casually, but for serious entertaining they go downstairs.

Next to the TV is a Roomba, a disc-shaped robot vacuum cleaner that, left to itself, will automatically vacuum the whole house.

The basement alcove is the nexus where all the ugly wires meet. Inside a cabinet are two computers that store music and movies, as well as a Kustom audio distribution box that can send six different streams of music to six different areas in the house, and a HomeVision X-10 box that is hooked into the heating, security, mailbox sensor, and lighting systems.

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Enter 'The Bat Cave'

Here it's worth noting that Fraser is a geek, as group vice president for products at software maker Wind River Systems. So he had to indulge his taste for tech in a basement room he calls "The Bat Cave."

The room has two rows of red sofas, with the back row raised for better viewing. The main attraction is a projection screen 10 feet wide with 5.1 channel THX sound, the heart of the home theater.

Instead of spending a lot more on a big screen TV, Fraser opted for a $2,500 NEC LT150 ceiling front projector hooked to an $800 computer, which can also be used to surf the Web or play games. Fraser can play DVD movies with a from a PC in the alcove and control the screen with a wireless mouse and keyboard.

"It's great for watching concert films," says Fraser as he watches the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense.

When ready to go to sleep, Fraser clicks the "Bat Cave Off" icon on his computer and the room's equipment and lights shut off.


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