New York (CNN/Money) - "I'm home," you announce to your house, as you stroll through the door like the Tom Cruise character in the futuristic thriller "Minority Report."
Your house, smart as a whip, responds warmly by switching on lamps and tuning the television to your favorite movie channel. Your fridge checks all the food on its shelves and in its drawers and searches the Internet for a good dinner recipe.
Well, it's not so far off. These domestic functions are already possible with today's technology, if not all on the market. Problem is, unlike in the movies, they're not all working smoothly yet, and there are pesky questions of standards still to be worked out.
There's no clear killer app for the smart home, and manufacturers are scrambling to figure out what's worth the trouble and the expense. You can go out today and buy voice-activated gear for the house, ranging from a $30 light switch to a $318 home automation kit named HAL (from a Laurel, Md., company called Home Automated Living) that runs on Windows and will respond to commands like "Computer, warm the hot tub at 7 p.m." or "Call Dad at the office."
But most of today's gadgets are still finicky -- and few things make you feel sillier than talking to an unresponsive computer. In an effort to make the smart home, well, smarter, companies as diverse as Cisco Systems, Panasonic, Sears Roebuck and Whirlpool have formed a nonprofit coalition called the Internet Home Alliance (IHA) to identify technologies that people might actually want. One focus: devices for improving family communication.
IHA member Kristine Stewart, Cisco's director of market development, checks her living room Webcam from her laptop when on the road. "Whether the kids even know that you're watching them, just catching a quick glance to see them all there," she said, "those small moments mean a lot." Stewart sees this as a model for the kind of practical, easy-to-use devices that can enhance the lives of regular--not just tech-savvy--people.
Smart -- but not too smart
By contrast, the smart-home concept of the past -- which had your Web-enabled phone connected to your Web-enabled television and your Web-enabled toaster - has proved clunky and impractical.
"The idea of phoning in to start your crockpot didn't take off," noted Kurt Scherf, vice president of research at Parks Associates, a market research firm in Dallas, "and I'm not convinced people want to do e-mail on their fridge."
Instead, the 21st-century smart home is evolving on two fronts. First, rather than one big network controlling everything in your home, smaller, independent networks are being developed to control each system: communications, entertainment, home office, and home infrastructure systems like heating and cooling, lighting and security. Second, as manufacturers realized that consumers lack enthusiasm for Web-enabled washing machines and toasters, they started designing individual appliances with just enough intelligence to make chores less tedious.
For example, the Swedish company Husqvarna markets a robotic lawn mower that is quiet, recharges itself on a battery pack, and can operate in the dark. Tony Evans, spokesman for Electrolux, nicely sums up the kind of products homeowners are looking for: "not supersmart --but highly intelligent."
The products highlighted in the photo gallery that accompanies this article -- organized by room, from kitchen to garage -- all live up to this ambitious but grounded ideal. In sorting through the scores of "smart" home products on the market, we tried to choose the practical over the high-concept. The gee-whiz factor was a plus -- but only if we could imagine the thing playing a role in real life.