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August 25, 2007

Houses of Dreams

We like to go to the Seattle Street of Dreams, which runs in the summer (this year's version ended a week ago). The homes are somewhat over the top (piano in the kitchen, six-car garage), and one of the ways they demonstrate this is in the amount of home automation they contain. Almost every house has a panel in every room that lets you control the music, lights, view the front door, be an intercom, etc.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has a location in Building 33 called the "Home of the Future", where it shows off the latest technology for home use. The HOTF is remodeled every couple of years; the current version includes RFID tags and speech recognition among its bag of doo-dads.

The Home of the Future is designed to show off Microsoft's vision of a home 5-10 years out. But, since Microsoft has been creating incarnations since back in the mid-1990s, we can now start to see how accurate the predictions were. The technology in the Home of the Future back then should roughly match up with the technology in a Street of Dreams house today.

The first Home of the Future, as far as I know, was the one described in the "yurt" article in Wired from July 1995. A quick excerpt: "Every room has a screen, from the multimedia PC in the kids nook, to the financial news tube in the office, to the recipe tablet for 'cooking apps' in the kitchen, to the projection screen in the den." I worked on the interactive television project described in the article, and visited that Home a few times. It did, in fact, have computer screens scattered around; some of them were mounted in the wall to look like pictures (since this predated consumer flat-panel screens, they were actually regular monitors supported by extra framing behind the walls).

The Home back then accurately predicted that there would be more technology than was common in 1995; houses would have multiple computers, people would use computers for more things, a larger percentage of friends and family would communicate with you over a computer. But I think it misjudged how much the technology itself would change. The cooking apps thing is as bogus as ever; the video email application that was part of the demo has not come true; we certainly have not achieved the vision of "the extended family mediated though technology", whatever that ever meant.

I suspect today's Home of the Future is also a bit off. I know Bill Gates has had a rocket in his pocket about speech recognition for years, but I still don't see it catching on for home automation. The notion of all the computers in a house linking together to provide an immersive experience that is greater than the sum of their parts seems impossible to properly specify beyond a canned situation like the Home. My older children recently had the opportunity to visit the Home and they did like the house-enhanced reading of "Goodnight Moon" that ends the tour, but again it seems hard to make this generic enough to move beyond demo phase.

Touring the Home is fun, and touring Street of Dreams is fun, but I don't think one is a preview of the other.

Posted by AdamBa at August 25, 2007 10:25 PM

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Last time I did the Home of the Future tour, the living room used LEDs for ambient lighting. Is that still there?

Posted by: Matt at August 26, 2007 12:32 AM

I think the cooking app is a valid thing and I would love it if I could display a recipe on the door of the fridge. I recently used a twice as much salt in a meatloaf I made because I was too lazy to look it up on my computer. All my common recipes are posted and I usually print them out to use them and then discard the printout.

Another comment is that our home network is badly broken (computers cannot reliably communicate with each other because we cannot get past the security that MS has implemented. When I want to send a file to Mrs. Chair, I upload it to my ftp site and she downloads it.

Posted by: marble chair at August 27, 2007 07:33 AM

Matt, there is some fancy lighting and whatnot in the Home (it has this undulating line of lights in the ceiling that leads from the entryway into the living area, if that is what you remember). It is very modern and current, but I view all that as atmosphere: it's the software part where we are showing off our own thinking.

Displaying recipes on the fridge is one thing; the kitchen app I scoff at all the time is the "pick a recipe for me to cook based on what is in my fridge". As for your home network, no comment! If I still worked on that stuff I might be able to help you...

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at August 27, 2007 04:13 PM