Homes, cars and phones slowly linking up

NEW YORK Fri May 20, 2011 5:49pm EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chat by video on multiple screens as you stroll around your house. Start a game on your living room TV and finish it on your car entertainment system.

Automobiles, phones, TVs and home appliances that talk to each other is a future technology companies have envisioned for a long time. And bit by bit, it is starting to happen.

Silicon Valley insiders told the Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York they are zeroing in on new ways to let people share media across different gadgets and make it safer to manage your locks and alarm systems over your iPhone.

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of location-based mobile social network Foursquare, has waited years for his Sony Playstation, computer and handheld gadgets to work smoothly together.

"You can see it happening but it's not there yet," he told the summit on Thursday. "But it's one of those where six months from now we'll say, 'How did we live without this?'"

Companies already dabble in ways to connect devices but many of their products are costly. Critics say the technology is still nascent and can be tricky to make work but engineers continue to chip away at the barrier between kitchen, automobile and living room.

"That kind of technology is just around the corner," said Nvidia (NVDA.O) Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang. "What's on my display on my phone will just magically show up on TV, or magically show up on my desktop monitor, or magically show up on any piece of glass that supports WiFi."

And so, Apple Inc (AAPL.O) offers technology that lets users stream music from PCs or iPads to stereos throughout the home. The technology, called AirPlay, is not widely used but hints at things to come.

"If you're at home and you have certain capabilities with your notebook, why limit them to your notebook? We want to enable them in a phone, in a tablet, on your television or in your car so that the devices seamlessly work together," Tom Kilroy, Intel's (INTC.O) senior vice president of sales and marketing, told the summit.

FEELING THE HEAT

The concept is familiar to any fan of sci-fi. But in past years, the purveyors of global technology -- increasingly competing on each others' turf while struggling to enthrall a fickle consumer -- have stepped up their efforts.

The advent of superior wireless, chip and storage technology also makes possible what would have taken whole servers to accomplish just a decade ago.

Verizon (VZ.N) plans to launch a product in the United States through its FiOS fiber-optic service that lets people use smartphones to control thermostats, lights, kitchen appliances and locks as well as cameras and motion sensors.

That kind of service, which depends on installing wireless chips in doors and light fixtures, is available but expensive, and so far the domain of the monied classes. But the backing of a major player like Verizon could move it into the mainstream.

Connecting devices may have other benefits than enriching the user experience. NXP Semiconductors (NXPI.O), which makes chips to help allow smartphones to pay for goods in stores, is also promoting home connectivity as a way for families to control their electricity consumption.

"Today you can get home automation but it costs certainly thousands of euros," NXP Chief Executive Richard Clemmer told the summit in Paris. "What we're talking about is something that you can do for hundreds of euros that will have a payback in five or six months through lower energy consumption."

Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo told the summit the carrier would eventually offer one-charge plans to connect multiple devices to the Web, a strategy that could encourage families to use more tablets and smartphones -- or connect their cars to the Web.

With so many criss-crossing connections, some worry that networks can be more easily compromised. So a few hope to ride the connected bandwagon by providing security.

This year, Intel bought McAfee for $7.68 billion, planning to build its cyber-security technology into chips as more and more gadgets connect to each other over the Internet and become exposed to hackers or viruses.

It is even exploring chips that drive smart advertising signs that can be programed and controlled from central locations, and interact with people's tablets and smartphones.

The final effect might be like, say, when Tom Cruise brushed by a futuristic Gap display in the movie "Minority Report" only to have a digital salesperson wake up and address him. In Intel's vision, Cruise's smartphone might be the trigger.

"A lot of innovation going on. We think consumers will (still) have multiple devices but they will work together more," Intel's Kilroy said.

(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in Paris, editing by Edwin Chan and Matthew Lewis)