Practical Futurist: Home, Smart Home

I once worked as script consultant on a Warner Bros. film called "Futurehome," which blessedly was never made. The initial draft was promising: an average middle-class family, Dad, Mom and two clean-cut kids, wins a contest that entitles them to move into a big corporation's latest and greatest invention--the ultimate automated home of the future.

At first it's all terrific, as the super-intelligent house, complete with soothing voice, anticipates their every wish, helping Mom with the cooking, the kids with their homework, controlling the lights and appliances and entertainment system so Dad barely has to move a muscle when he comes home from work and flops into the recliner. The corporation is delighted: clearly their house of the future will be a commercial smash.

But then, the ease and comfort of the automated life begins to corrode the character of the house's inhabitants--the family becomes lazier, more isolated from one another, alienated from the real world. This being Hollywood, however, the studio executives wanted more action, so by the fourth draft, the house had become a mad killer: the mother was macerated by an out-of-control food blender, the daughter roasted in a microwave clothes dryer, and in the basement a tiny nuclear power source was threatening to melt down and take out the entire city.

Like many movies, the execution was over the top but there was a kernel of truth in the concept: the idea of highly-automated "intelligent" house gives some people the creeps. I am not among them: I've been a home automation enthusiast for years. When my last house was built in California, the electrician said he'd never in his career put so many wires in the walls--and I used them all. That house's central computer controlled everything from lighting and heating to security and the lawn sprinklers.

The only time my smart house bothered me was when it suddenly acted dumb and, say, turned on all the house and yard lights at ten in the morning--but that was usually because I was trying to program in a new function. But what is it that makes some people nervous about a house that knows their name and adjusts their lighting? I pondered the question last month as I toured Microsoft's remarkable Home of the Future prototype at the company's massive Bellevue, Wash., campus. Was there anything here to be nervous about?

For starters, the Microsoft home puts my former California techno-crib in the shade. It has all of the usual "smart home" aspects, such as a nice voice synthesizer that greets you by name once you've used your keycard to enter. And it makes good use of some existing technology, letting each inhabitant of the house specify where and how to receive messages. If you're in the car and someone comes to the front door, you can answer the door from your car and talk to the visitor. Or, if you don't want to be bothered, the visitor's message, spoken on the front porch, can be turned into text and sent to you via e-mail. But the Microsoft project goes further, by showcasing the domestic potential of some upcoming technology.

In the kitchen, for example, the refrigerator makes use of the "smart tags" that will likely be attached to most consumer products in another decade or so. These tiny radio frequency chips are intended to replace bar codes for check-out purposes in stores--cash registers will simply communicate with each item's chip to learn its price. Once you've brought the groceries home, the Microsoft kitchen takes further advantage of these chips.

That means the refrigerator "knows" what it contains, and can communicate that via a synthesized voice. You can phone your refrigerator--or send it an e-mail--and ask whether you need to buy eggs. But there's more: once home, you can take ingredients out of the refrigerator and set them on a kitchen counter that can also "read" the ID chips. The home's computer then verbally suggests a few recipes that will match the ingredients you've chosen. Pick one of the recipes, and it's instantly projected onto the surface of the counter in front of you, ready to prepare.

Another upcoming technology the Microsoft house cleverly adapts is the use of very bright light-emitting diodes instead of incandescent or fluorescent bulbs for room lighting. In the living room, a set of variously-colored LEDs mix together to create the normal "white light" we're familiar with. But you can also turn a dial on the wall that adjusts the mixture, so the light in the room alters, green, a gradual, seamless transition quite unlike any other lighting effect I've seen before. The smart house, in short, now has the ability not just to raise and lower the lights, but change their tint as well.

So what's here to make folks nervous? Perhaps it's what I noticed on the big video screen in the living room: a notation that Grandma was having a "normal" day. My guide explained: the house was monitoring a hypothetical grandmother's activities at her nearby home, also automated. Thus far she'd opened her front door to pick up the newspaper and also brewed some coffee, both at about her usual time for such activities--so her house was reporting to our house that Grandma's day was "normal."

Hmmm. Clearly, if Grandma hadn't left her bed all day, a concerned child would want to know, and the smart house was providing that service. But I couldn't help but think about that hypothetical Grandma who, by the time this kind of feature is actually feasible, will likely be a baby boomer in her late seventies. What will she think about living in a house that reports her activities back to her kids? Maybe she'll think it's reassuring--or maybe she'll think it's a little creepy.

Clearly, the next phase of development for the smart home is to decide just what's creepy and what's not. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling puts it well in our Online Forum @Home and @Play this week: "I see a lot of potential for 'sensitive houses' rather than smart houses...a house should shelter people, not boss them around with computer algorithms." That's not technology so much as psychology, and projects like Microsoft's Home of the Future are precisely the right way to test the possibilities long before the first moving van pulls up.