The companies that want to use ZigBee to monitor and control your in-home energy use just got a big boost from some of the world's biggest consumer electronics makers.
The ZigBee Alliance and a consortium that includes Sony, Panasonic, Samsung and Royal Philips Electronics said Tuesday that they've agreed on a new specification for radio frequency-based remote controls as a replacement for infrared remotes.
That means TVs, home theater equipment, set-top boxes and other consumer electronics from the RF4CE Consortium could soon be coming equipped to take orders from remotes using the new ZigBee-based standard.
The electronics makers say ZigBee remotes are better because they don't need to be in sight of what they're controlling, as do infrared remotes, and haven't made any pronouncements about the standard's use for energy monitoring or control systems. Sony has already commercialized wireless remote controls based on 802.15.4, the IEEE standard that underpins ZigBee, for LCD TVs.
But electronics makers like Sony have been looking at adding energy controls and monitors to their devices behind the scenes, said John Quealy, managing director of equity research at Canaccord Adams. That could eventually mean that TVs and home entertainment systems could be part of utility demand-response systems that turn off appliances when they're facing the threat of blackouts.
And companies that have backed ZigBee for in-home energy controls are saying this could spell the end of the battle over which wireless standard – ZigBee, WiFi, Z-Wave, WiMax –will rule the home energy management field (see Get Ready for the WiFi Thermostat and Sigma Snaps Up Perennial Smart Grid Hopeful Zensys).
"This effectively means that ZigBee can declare victory for low power standard in the home," said Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril Networks, a home energy monitoring and control hardware and software developer that has been a big ZigBee backer.
Quealy didn't go so far as to declare the standards battle over. But Tuesday's news "certainly doesn't hurt" ZigBee, he said.
"There are some pretty sizeable proponents of it now," he said, including utilities Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric, which have said they favor the low-power standard to link smart meters they're deploying in the hundreds of thousands to in-home energy monitoring and control systems.
And while he hasn't heard any public announcements, Quealy said sources have told him that Sony and other consumer electronics makers are "evaluating the inclusion of energy management, and communicating energy consumption into an outside device."
"It may take a couple of years to have them show up on the shelves of Best Buy," he added. "But in terms of product design cycles, they are considering that."
Such capabilities are just what companies like Tendril and home automation system maker Control4 now would need to capture a range of energy-saving possibilities in a wide array of ZigBee-enabled consumer devices.
Control4 now controls some consumer electronics in pilot projects it's doing with utilities, giving the devices signals to turn off when utilities send signals that they're facing a strain on their capacity, said Paul Nagel, vice president of strategic development.
The company has been using Internet protocol or infrared controls to do that until now. But moving to a wireless standard "does open up an opportunity for those devices to participate in demand response programs more easily than they do nowadays," he said.
And Control4 has been working with consumer electronics companies for the last 18 months to suggest new energy-saving features, like "sleep" modes and energy consumption tracking, he said.
While Control4 isn't a strict ZigBee backer, "we like to support standards, Nagel said. "That's why we've stuck with ZigBee and WiFi, and we'll support other standards as they're developed for the home."
Members of the ZigBee Alliance include smart meter makers Itron and Landis+Gyr, meter communications and networking providers Trilliant and Silver Spring Networks, chipset makers Ember Corp. and Freescale Semiconductor and – perhaps not surprisingly – Philips and Samsung.
Shipments of chips based around the 802.15.4 standard will rise to 292 million units in 2012, way up from the seven million sold in 2007, according to research firm InStat. ZigBee is based around 802.15.4, and one-third of the chips on the 802.15.4 protocol will be based around a ZigBee stack, the firm predicted.
Companies have been busy getting their home energy systems ready for ZigBee communications. Silver Spring Networks announced last week that is had chosen Exegin Technologies Ltd. as its partner for bringing ZigBee from Silver Spring-enabled smart meters into homes.
Other companies with different technologies for bringing energy date into and out of homes are adapting to ZigBee's emerging dominance. Echelon Corp., which uses its own power line signaling technology to carry data over a building's electrical wiring, is now making its smart meters with ZigBee cards in them if utilities want them (see Echelon Beefs up LonWorks).