Looking Inside Tomorrow’s Home

Step Inside the Electronic Cottage

Control Central. There’s no doubt that computers will continue to grow in importance in our lives. While some homeowners will use their PC to control their home automation systems, more and more often the appliances and equipment will have dedicated microchips as controllers. These in turn will either be professionally configured, or controlled by a master control panel.

The electronic cottage has a household LAN, connecting the variety of PCs in the house together, and also to a high speed Internet connection, such as a cable modem. Multiple PCs on the LAN, or control panels hooked up to a central computer will be in most rooms.

But what does the control center control? Let’s take a walk through the rooms of our electronic cottage.

Smart Kitchen. The first Internet-friendly appliances are being created for the kitchen right now. According to the authors of 1999’s Smart Homes for Dummies book, very soon, the Internet will be accessible via your refrigerator door. A thin, touch-screen computer monitor will be mounted in the door. The screen will be connected to a computer chip and LAN card in the back of the fridge. Instead of handwriting notes and sticking them to the door via a magnet, the Internet fridge will hold your shopping lists, send and receive e-mails, and access your phone numbers. You can download your shopping list for the week (based on your dietary needs), and then forward that list to your local grocery store, or online food delivery service.

Smart Garage. The garage of this smart home is wired up as well. There is a sensor to prevent you from hitting the wall when you park. A computer is connected to the LAN, so that car repair information can be downloaded. There is also a pair of speakers connected to the whole-house audio system, for music when working on the car. Motion sensors allow you to take out the garbage or do quick errands in the garage without turning on and off lights manually.

Smart Home’s Media Room. Inside today’s high tech smart home is an equally advanced media room, or even a dedicated home theater. The TV is either a front or rear projection unit that has an aspect ratio of 16X9. That TV is of course HDTV and DTV compatible, for watching the digital programming that’s slowly trickling out.

A variety of TV formats will co-exist for a while. Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits Web site says, “I suspect we’ll see high-definition used for major programs, movies and sports. But it will be mixed with standard-definition for a long time. In addition to the high costs of upgrading equipment, there is also a lag in the creation of HDTV-ready programming.”

Increasingly, entertainment in the smart home theater is being supplied by DVDs. Longer term, High-Definition DVD format (HDVD) should become the de facto standard for home use, especially when a recordable feature is added to it. However, Hunt feels that’s at least 10 to 15 years down the line. “Digital TV and High Definition TV are definitely here now, but it will take at least a decade for it to appear in a significant number of U.S. living rooms.”

Sound isn’t neglected in the state of the art smart home, either. The home theater contains at least a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound system, as well as the extra wiring to support the new Dolby EX standard, which adds additional rear speakers for an even greater wrap-around surround sound experience.

Additionally, there is a modulator, so that any TV in the house can dial up what’s on in the home theater on one of the otherwise unused TV channels. There is also multi-zone audio, so that people in the living room, home office, and bedrooms can listen to different music from different audio sources. There are also outdoor speakers, particularly if the family living there likes to entertain.

Bedrooms. Inside the children’s bedroom is a PC connected to the household LAN. A filtering program prevents them from accidentally visiting any Web sites with questionable content. There is a video game system. The children can access the whole house audio system, as well as play music of their own on the DVD-ROM of their computer. Also, while the kids are young, there is a video camera monitor that can be viewed through a modulator on one of the TV channels, or on a TV tuner in the home office computer.

The master bedroom has a keypad to control the sound and video sources. There is also an infrared repeating system, so that the whole house audio and video components, which are centrally located in a media storage room, can be operated from the bed. A video-out card in the bedroom’s computer allows computer programs to be viewed on the TV, and a wireless keyboard allows dad to surf the ‘Net from bed. Conversely mom can watch a movie in an inset window on her computer, while she pays bills via online banking.

Finishing our tour, it’s significant to note that virtually none of the items above are the sole province of the wealthy, but are affordable to just about any family with some disposable income, provided they plan their home automation and entertainment goals carefully. Expect this trend to continue, as PCs reach the sub-$500 mark, and DVD players are available for under $300.

Smart Home of 2010

By the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, many of the features of the smart home we just walked through will have advanced even further. Two main changes will predominate.

Dick Gensley of HomeTech Solutions believes that “Simplicity will reign a lot more than it does now. Home automation is now sort of considered ‘complicated.’ And it’s going to be simplified to where it’s not bewildering. I think that home automation [by 2010] will be more inconspicuous than it is today. You’ll walk into an automated home and you won’t feel the impact of it, you’ll just enjoy the subtle benefits of it being automated.” And the other main change is that by 2010, home automation will become mainstream as different groups find it suits their needs and lifestyles.

Homeowners will take advantage of lighting controls and whole house audio and video to “sculpt” carefully crafted “moods.” These moods will enhance or inspire romance, music enjoyment, meditation, etc. The labor saving aspects of home automation will increasingly benefit the elderly, and the handicapped. Remote control features will makes life easier for those who are away from home for work or travel. In addition, the continuing evolution of computing and communications will benefit the increasing numbers of people who use their homes for business.

Imbedded chips in household devices will be common. And perhaps no more so than our car. Today’s microchips, which merely track how the car is running, will be old hat. By 2010, that chip could be interacting with remote databases and troubleshooting systems at the dealership. This system tracks oil changes, lube, tire rotation needs, and the condition of the car’s systems. It then interacts with your scheduling program to make a maintenance appointment.

Another “ease of use” imbedded chip may be microwave dinners that contain a barcode with cooking instructions, so that all you have to do is pop the dinner in the oven and press the start button.

Convergence and the rapid growth of the Internet that began in the mid-1990s will both be even further along. Like a futuristic Dick Tracy, you’ll wear a wristwatch (or maybe it will be a credit card sized device) that allows you to monitor the Internet as well as all of the computerized functions in your house, via a wireless modem.

By 2010, HDTV will be firmly entrenched, with the remaining NTSC TVs (and there will be lots of them, despite the rapidly lowering cost of HDTVs) accessing letterboxed HDTV programming via a converter box.

For sports fans, cable TV and satellite companies may very well offer an updated version of a system that Britain’s Sky Sports’ Extra Network began offering its viewers in the summer of 1999. Sky’s system allows viewers to roll the action back 30 seconds for tailor-made instant replays. They can also access statistics like the number of shots on goal or facts about a particular player. User chosen multiple camera angles are also being introduced.

In terms of entertainment changes in 2010, Bill Hunt of the Digital Bits says, “I think movies on demand is inevitable, either via digital cable, Internet or satellite distribution. Hollywood just likes that pay-per-view model too much. That way they can still keep making money on their libraries in the future.”

A 2020 Vision&#0151and Beyond

Although changes we expect to see in 10 years are already on the drawing board now, and therefore not too difficult to predict—changes that we can expect to see in 20 years are more speculative—most futurists have their own favorite visions.

One theme David Gerrold, the Hugo and Nebula Award winning science fiction author and television writer, hopes to see is a serious re-evaluation of energy supply and use, and a re-visit to some ideas that never got off the ground in the past. “While it’s wishful thinking,” he says, “I’d like to see every home with solar panels on the roof, so every home generates its own electrical power during daylight hours. But connecting each house to a national grid means that eastern states could share their extra power with western states in the morning and western states could share their extra power with eastern states in the evening.”

Inside the house, Gerrold also sees the robotic manipulators and sophisticated processors used in business, being used at home. So he likes the idea of a robot that sneaks out at night while you’re asleep and washes and vacuums the floors.

Gerrold sees the family room becoming a real entertainment center for everyone, not just the home theater buffs. Asked to describe the 2020 home theater, he said: “One wall will be for the wall-sized projection screen, giving you the home IMAX. Video projectors will be far more prevalent because you can customize the size of the image to your room. You’ll have at least 6.1 channel sound. You’ll probably have point-and-click menus, and a great deal of audio and video will be available for download on demand.

“The Internet will provide special-interest channels of all kinds. Your Internet connection will always be on, and it will function in real-time. Speech recognition and voice synthesis should simplify using all of this technology a lot.”

Ultimately, the house of the future will reflect changes in our society, which in turn will drive and be driven by technological advances. The extent to which energy costs are an issue, will determine whether Gerrold’s solar energy vision will become a reality. The extent to which e-commerce continues to develop and trickles down from business to consumer uses, will determine whether people are comfortable allowing their refrigerator’s chip to place grocery orders.

One thing is certain: those of you who are interested in technology, and how to use it to make our lives more efficient and more fun are in for the ride your lives!

Edward B. Driscoll, Jr. is a San Jose-based journalist who writes on a variety of topics, especially technology, design, and home electronics for numerous magazines. Additionally, he covers technology stocks for National Review Online's financial section.

This article originally appeared in Home Automation magazine.

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