Phone Home

Technology lets Kyle Hoff run the whole house from the palm of his hand.

Kyle Hoff’s former night nurse was a sweet enough lady. But she just didn’t get it. No matter how many times he talked her through the process, she couldn’t figure out how to use the remote controls to his entertainment system.

So, in spring 2008, Hoff, who’s paralyzed from the chest down, determined to simplify the task. He went to Bob & Ron’s World Wide Stereo, an electronics store near his suburban Philadelphia home, to buy a multi-function universal remote. But by the time Hoff and his wife, Brittany, left the store, they’d embarked on a $200,000 technological journey that would streamline their lives more than any inexpensive remote ever could. Since then, thanks to the Savant control system (savantav.com), a mostly wireless networking platform they discovered at the shop, the couple have lived more normally than either had imagined possible.

“At first I didn’t believe it,” says Hoff, 28, who was a civil engineer before a workplace construction accident left him with C4–5 quadriplegia in 2007. “I thought it was something that was way in the future.”

But what too many people with spinal-cord injury (SCI) don’t realize is that when it comes to electronic innovations that facilitate independence, the future is already here.

Run of the House

With Savant, Hoff literally has the world at his fingertips—or, given that he doesn’t have mobility in his fingers, at his knuckles and wrists. By accessing Savant through an application on his iPhone, which rests on his lap at all times, he can control every system in his house that uses electricity. His door locks, lights, air conditioning, lawn sprinklers, TV, stereo, and a database of 2,400 movies on hard drives—provided by the Kaleidescape Blu-ray/DVD server and viewable from any of his four TVs—can all be controlled from Hoff’s phone, regardless of whether he’s in the room, on the deck, or down the street. It gives him the run of his custom-built, 6,800-square-foot house without the need to rely on Brittany or his current nurse, Pam.

“I love that Kyle can be independent,” says Brittany, 27, who works as an artist in her basement studio. “I went out with some friends last night, and I felt comfortable that he could get out if he needed to. I knew he would be safe.”


Kyle Hoff (in hat) and Bob Cole look over the guts of the Savant system.

Because Hoff is, according to Brittany, a “hands-on, do-it-himself kind of guy” who’s always been a movie and gadget geek, he opted to have World Wide Stereo technicians install a super-deluxe package that lets him entertain himself and friends in ways most people would envy. Aside from three residential surround-sound zones and a studio-size movie library, his primary point of pride is the 19-seat home theater—with room for two wheelchairs—that he’s designing. When it’s finished in a few months, it will have an 18-foot screen, a lobby, and be completely soundproofed and wheelchair accessible.

“He’s got a professional vision only a maniac would think of,” laughs Bob Cole, World Wide Stereo’s owner.

More than Convenience

Cole’s fond of mentioning that while most of his clients are mainstream professionals who come to him to amplify their leisure time or eliminate minor hassles (think of the 60 seconds they save by eradicating the need to fumble with a DVD case), technology can radically transform quality of life. 

As Hoff puts it, “Most people don’t think of it as, ‘Oh this would help a paralyzed guy watch a movie.’ It’s more like, ‘This would help some rich guy not have to get up to turn off his lights.’ But what makes life easier for other people usually lets us (quads) do huge things.”

For this reason Cole—a former psychologist whose current customer roster includes a group of deaf audiophiles, a woman with cerebral palsy, and an elderly billionaire who fears growing too frail to maintain his household without Savant—calls Hoff a metaphor for the common man.

“In ancient Greece they were able to achieve all their advancements in artistry, etc., because they took care of their basic needs,” he says. “It’s the fundamental premise of civilization. The progress of life came when you didn’t have to worry about all of that.”

Just the Beginning

In the Hoff house, the seemingly endless connective circuitry and the heavy-duty Internet signals perform the basic labor. The network is built on thousands of feet of wire (mostly Monster Cable), an ultra high-power wireless signal, and industrial cable connectors by Audioquest, which ensure unadulterated audio performance. Most of it is hidden, save for the basement control room where all those wires and monitors and blinking lights converge.

“It does look daunting. At first I was intimidated by it,” says Brittany, who smiles while admitting she’s still “afraid of breaking it.”

But just like the wheelchair and the caretaking and the hour-long toilet episodes (made bearable, not surprisingly, by the same abstruse sound system that feeds the whole house), the technology becomes just another facet of their post-accident lives together. Hoff, who’s described by his friends and family as perpetually cheerful and optimistic, is getting ready to relearn to drive, and he and Brittany are doing research on adopting a child.

While he half seriously and half jokingly says he’s not exactly sure how Savant can help him in these upcoming endeavors, he is excited to greet whatever technological advances come next. He predicts that they, like those that preceded them, will build on Savant’s current platform to work with a wider range of appliances and will become easier and cheaper to use. But he knows for sure that whatever specific form these new technologies take, he’s going to have fun playing with them in every room of his house.

“He’s going to take this project he calls his home, and I think he’s going to enhance other people’s lives with it,” Cole says. “He’s unfamiliar with the word ‘limits.’ He’s not going to be dancing any time soon, but short of that, he’s indefatigable.”

Hoff concurs: “You can turn on a movie, watch it, turn it off, and go do something else. It’s just one more thing to make you feel normal.”  

 

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