Chasing a Habitable 'Home of the Future' People love to speculate on what the home of the future will look like -- remember the cartoon the Jetsons? But history is littered with the detritus of failed utopian homes. The latest efforts at high tech homes have to balance gadgetry with livability.
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Chasing a Habitable 'Home of the Future'

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Chasing a Habitable 'Home of the Future'

Chasing a Habitable 'Home of the Future'

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As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, hi-tech homes have to balance gadgetry with livability.

LAURA SYDELL: People love to speculate on what the home of the future will look like. Remember the cartoon the Jetsons?


SYDELL: Unidentified Man: Welcome to Monsanto's Plastics Home of the Future.

SYDELL: Unidentified Man: As you entered this experimental model home, perhaps you noticed that the house itself is constructed entirely of plastics.

SYDELL: There was a term for this view of a future in which homes were made of inorganic items like plastic: damp cloth utopianism, says Edward Tenner, the author of Our Own Devices.

EDWARD TENNER: Part of it was that all these surfaces then would just need a quick touch-up. It was organized for a certain kind of efficiency. And in some extreme cases, it was supposed to be even possible to hose the whole thing down.

SYDELL: Jonathan Cluts, Director of Consumer Prototyping and Strategy at Microsoft, stands at the doorway. No key is needed. There's a glass block on the door post big enough for a flat palm.

JONATHAN CLUTS: It'll do a palm scan, and when it does it unlocks the door and lets us in.

SYDELL: If the scanner doesn't recognize the handprint, the door doesn't open. This house is totally wired. She even talks. Her name is Grace.

CLUTS: Grace, what time is it?

GRACE: The time is 12:21 p.m.

CLUTS: Grace, what's up?

GRACE: (Unintelligible) also, you have a conference call with (unintelligible)...

CLUTS: So you see, it's able to pull from my basic events here in the home. It knows what's going on with different family members. We have some command and control, so I can say, Grace, set scene to welcome home.

SYDELL: If you're cooking, no need to look up a recipe. Grace knows what ingredients are on hand and what can be made from them. She'll even read you the cooking instructions.

GRACE: Cut parchment paper to fit baking sheet. Liberally sprinkle paper with flour and semolina.

SYDELL: Grace can even help when you're out of the house. Imagine being at the supermarket. You've forgotten your shopping list. Can't remember if you're out of eggs?

CLUTS: So I take out my pocket PC or my cell phone, ask my phone to check. So my refrigerator will look, checked to see whether I've got it in inventory, and I can decide while I'm at the store whether I need to pick that up or not.

SYDELL: Cluts says the trend towards faster and cheaper computing power will eventually make it possible to get a computerized bulletin board for the price of an ordinary one today.

CLUTS: The fact of the matter is that the processing power in that gets cheap so quickly, right, that you can really project that five to ten years from now, that you would be able to make that same type device for about the same price.

SYDELL: People have imagined such homes going back to the 1920s. Many had light switches that turned themselves on and off, but over time, the same problem keeps popping up. Without a human in the loop, Larson says the automation can fail to do as ordered.

KEN LARSON: If a system makes decisions for you related to lighting or whatever, and it only gets it right, you know, 95 percent of the time, which is way beyond our capability, it still really annoys people five percent of the time and they'll turn it off and not use it.

SYDELL: Larson directs the House In Project at MIT. The project installs new technologies in a model home, but unlike many of the futurist visions, this one is tested with real human beings who live in the home for two weeks at a time.

LARSON: What I would like to do is to bring together some of the idealism and confidence that you can solve societal problems that the early modernists have without this rigid aesthetic ideology. I'd rather more democratized design and give people the choice to decide on their own environment, which may well be deciding to have no technology at all.

SYDELL: Still, some consumers are incorporating automation into their homes. Jay Jeffers, an interior designer based in San Francisco, is flipping through the pages of a book with pictures of the homes of the homes of his clients.

JAY JEFFERS: There are a lot of things going on with technology, with lighting, and creating lighting scenarios, you know, where you touch a button and the button is called entertainment, and all the lights in the house are dimmed. And I'm seeing that a lot, which I think is great.

SYDELL: However, Jeffers certainly sees limits to the growing use of computers and technology in the home.

JEFFERS: It's your cocoon and your place to really relax and have some downtime. And I think if you've got wires running around everywhere and you've got TV and technology and, you know, all these things going on everywhere, it's distracting to your relaxation.

SYDELL: 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.

ALAN PALLER: All our other information, all our other personal information that we're working so hard to protect on our PCs, becomes open to attackers if these appliances come with vulnerabilities, because the appliances are going to be on the same network as our PCs.

SYDELL: Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

YDSTIE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne.


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