Chasing a Habitable 'Home of the Future'

Microsoft Home i i

Among the features of the Microsoft Home, above: voice commands, interactive gaming and gesture recognition, allowing interaction with the home using hand movements. hide caption

itoggle caption
Microsoft Home

Among the features of the Microsoft Home, above: voice commands, interactive gaming and gesture recognition, allowing interaction with the home using hand movements.

History is littered with the detritus of failed utopian homes. Take the Monsanto "House of the Future," which was set up in 1957 in Disneyland. It was made entirely of plastics, the idea being that surfaces would be easier to clean and maintain.

Of course, it quickly became apparent that no one wanted to live in an all-plastic home. When workers tried to take down the Monsanto house, the wrecking ball bounced off the plastic and they had to take it apart with a saw.

Still, a history of failed utopian visions isn't stopping Microsoft from offering up its ideas. The company maintains a prototype of its home of the future at its headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Jonathan Cluts, director of consumer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft, gains entry to "Grace" via a scan of his palm.

"Grace, what's up?" Cluts asks, and the house responds with a vocal rundown of his schedule for the day. If asked to "set scene to welcome home," Grace turns on the lights, raises the blinds and begins playing some of Cluts' favorite music.

Contemplating cooking something? Grace knows what ingredients are on hand and what can be made from them. At the grocery store, Grace can help check on what's needed at home.

Grace doesn't talk back or complain about the hours. But she is everywhere — running, of course, on Microsoft software.

The idea of an automated home predates the modern computer era, says Kent Larson of the department of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Going back to the 1920s, people have imagined homes that had such features as light switches that turned themselves on and off.

Over time, however, the same problem keeps popping up: Without a human in the loop, Larson says, the automation can fail to do as ordered.

Larson directs MIT's House_n project, a model home meant for testing new technologies. Unlike many futurist visions, this one is tested with real human beings who live in the home for two weeks at a time. "I'd [like to] democratize design and give people the choice to decide on their own environment," Larson says, "which may well be deciding to have no technology at all."

For those who do decide to hand over some tasks at home to a computer, security poses an issue. Without careful protections, computerized appliances may be even more vulnerable to viruses than a desktop computer, says Alan Paller of the SANS Institute, which does research on computer security issues.

History may demonstrate that those who make technologies often dream bigger than their potential target consumers. But some small percentage of their vision is likely to find its way into our daily lives. Our entire kitchen may not be made of plastic, but at least the Tupperware is.

Audio Reminder System from MIT

Memento, MIT's prototype reminder system, presents users with "three best guesses" about what they are currently doing and lets them associate an audio reminder with the most appropriate choice. MIT hide caption

itoggle caption MIT

'Tomorrowland History'

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