The future promises faster Internet links, networked computers that talk with intelligent appliances, conveniences, energy savers and devices to keep family members entertained and connected, experts say.
Here's a glimpse at some features of the home of the future, coming to a home near you in an estimated three to seven years:
- Virtual birthday parties with faraway relatives and friends would be possible courtesy a TV videoconferencing system connected to the Internet via high-speed wires.
- Intelligent appliances would be able to communicate with the home computer network if its task is complete, or if the appliance malfunctions. For instance, the basement clothes dryer would be able to alert the person watching an upstairs PC or TV that the clothes are dry. Sensors would detect an extra dirty wash load, and compensate with added cleaning power.
- Lights and audio systems would be controlled by a central touchpad, and also would be adjusted by a remote control. The home's control center would be alerted when owners leave the house, automatically reducing the thermostat.
- The control center would be able to communicate with outside entities such as the National Weather Service, so that when rain is forecast, the homeowner would be alerted and the sprinkler system could be turned off and the windows closed remotely.
"We're envisioning home automation, home monitoring and security, inventory and shopping aids, and intelligent books, games and appliances," said Ken Lim, senior futurist for CyberMedia Convergence Consulting in Cupertino, Calif.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its own view of the house of the future.
Lim next month will release his "Interactive Opportunities in the Home, 2001" research about the home of the future.
Technology and appliance companies, as well as such universities as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are studying the possibilities and are working with manufacturers to make the house of the future a reality.
Some technologies, such as speedy networks and high-tech entertainment systems, are now being installed in high-end new constructions. In the future, even median-income homes will have their own ethernets, with connections for computers in the kitchen, the home office, children's bedrooms and the family room.
The kitchen computer could bring up handy dinner recipes after the cook types in available ingredients, while the student can seek homework help over the Internet.
Give me more time
"I want computing to take the tedium out of my day and leave me with the good stuff -- like more time for my family or for entertainment," said Suze Woolf, group program manager for Microsoft's home of the future prototyping team. Microsoft displayed futuristic vignettes at Comdex and Windows World last week in Chicago.
High-speed lines such as 1394 or coaxial will be wired to universal outlets throughout the house. Some companies are working on retrofitting copper "twisted-pair" wire for high-bandwidth usage, or developing wireless networks using radio frequencies, thereby eliminating the need for rewiring an existing house.
Beyond high-speed local-area networks, or LANs, those developing futuristic plans think the next step is to develop user interfaces between intelligent appliances and the networks.
"That's farther out in the future than networks," Woolf said. An example might be using a "low footprint" operating system such as Windows CE, which might connect the network to an intelligent washing machine. When a load of wash is "out of balance," a message may appear on the computer network, alerting the homeowner.
Refrigerators can't crash
Lim warns that consumers won't tolerate computer crashes that disable the household. "I think PCs are incapable of doing (a home network). They are not robust enough to handle multiple elements," Lim said. "The network needs to be bulletproof -- as reliable as a refrigerator or phone. How often do they crash?"
Bringing intelligent appliances and other technologies mainstream are three to seven years down the road, according to experts. While high-tech wiring and technologies are currently only afforded by the rich, systems for the future will be targeted to middle-income households and will be conventional installations for new home construction.
A home multimedia system, which combines DVD, Web browsing, gaming, and high-speed data and telephone capabilities is well on its way to manufacturing this summer, according to Jeff Minushkin, president of Multimedia Convergence Corp., a Chicago-based technology firm.
MCC is developing the TV set-top device for a high-profile manufacturer, to be disclosed next month, and will retail for less than $500, he said. Buying separate WebTV boxes, gaming devices and DVD players today would cost more than $1,000.
Screen phones in 1999
Coming within 12 to 18 months are video screen phones, which would sell for $500 initially and $300 by Christmas of 1999, Lim said. The screens would be 3x5 or 6x9 inches.
"We're headed in a lot of directions for the home of the future," Lim said. "What you'll need is one device to handle the multiple elements. A simple and cheap network is important."
Martha L. Stone writes on Internet and technology issues, and is a frequent contributor to ZDNN.