REDMOND, Wash. — From outside, the futuristic house looks like something from a Disney production, an immaculately sterile structure from the not-too-distant future.
On Microsoft’s sprawling, rustic campus, this home is a maze of futuristic rooms, a digital kitchen and interactive walls. Recipes are projected onto the kitchen counter, children can play video games from a table’s surface, and bedrooms have interactive wall posters that can be changed daily, based on the occupant’s mood.
No one lives there, but it is a template for the future. Indeed, many houses throughout the USA already have hints of Microsoft’s model home. Might this be a working blueprint for better things, of a life that just decades ago seemed possible only in the world of science fiction?
What once seemed conceivable only on The Jetsons is a real prospect in the next few years. If you’ve heard these utopian and futuristic promises before, only to be disappointed, this story is for you. Because as Americans embrace 2013 and the new year that is upon us, know this: The future of American homes is now.
The rise of intelligent devices, ongoing breakthroughs in robotics, cloud computing and other newfangled technology promise to usher in a new phase in luxuriant and wired home living. Hyperbole of years past has quickly melted away as a pantheon of tech titans — ranging from Apple and Google to Samsung and Microsoft — vie for home-field advantage. Home increasingly is where billions of dollars are expected to be spent on technology as consumers nest in their living rooms and bedrooms on smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles.
Meanwhile, elements of the future home — smart TVs and newfangled sound systems — will be on display next week at the sprawling International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Since The Jetsons’ animated TV show — which touted a life-size in-home robot, a computerized kitchen and flying cars — automated homes have been a staple in American culture, from TV’s Futurama and the big screen’s I, Robot and Blade Runner to the pages of Wired magazine.
For more than a decade, Bill Gates has rhapsodized about homes of the future. But he was able to achieve his digital dream home through his enormous wealth and contacts. Gates’ 66,000-square-foot mansion on the shores of Lake Washington near Seattle, took seven years and $63 million to build. It houses a computerized server system and a digitally controlled climate.
But for most consumers, the ideal future home has been a pipe dream.
“If this stuff was easy, it would have been in our homes years ago,” says Gilles BianRosa, CEO of Fanhattan, an iPhone and iPad app to find and watch movies and TV shows on services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. “Wow technology doesn’t always pass the test for practical use, such as smartphone control of TV.”
“The office is (an environment) for lean-forward experience for smartphone apps and total concentration, but home is lean-back, where you want to relax and don’t want to think too much,” he says. “This stuff takes time to develop for simple use.”
Because there is no standard building code in the U.S., “This gets in the way of ambitious automation systems,” says Paul Saffo, a respected futurist in Silicon Valley.
Complicating matters, the average life of a home in the USA is about 55 years, which means anything new has to be back-compatible and easily added as a remodel. By comparison, the life cycle for an appliance is about 10 years, two years for a laptop and 18 months for a smartphone.
“Today’s hot new automation is hopelessly antiquated in two years and has to be replaced,” Saffo says. “This is why, for example, I never put a built-in cellphone in my car. The car would stay current for five years, but the phone would be obsolete for three of those years.”
What this means for architects and building contractors is a renewed look at how they design and build homes, with the inclusion of new gadgets that are designed to blend into living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms.
Architect Tom Kinslow, who has designed homes and commercial buildings in the U.S. and abroad, says changes are often incremental. “It’s no different than (home additions) for people interested in art,” he says. Tech-based entertainment centers will lead to the installation of sound systems and screens within walls to save space. Smart windows will be bigger than traditional windows. And increased use of shared, driverless cars will eliminate the need for garages or dramatically reduce their size, he says.
Marching into the future
Yet these nagging complications from the past have not slowed the inevitable — and inevitably thrilling — march into the future.
Some 821 million smart devices — smartphones and tablets — are estimated to have been sold last year r and 1.2 billion are expected to be sold in 2013, according to Gartner.
“There are smarter phones, so why not smarter homes?” says SoundCloud CEO Alexander Ljung. “It’s perhaps natural that the phone is a remote control for a lot of things. Touch-screens are replacing buttons.”
Sprinklers, kitchen appliances, washers, dryers, lights, windows, pools — all could be controlled from a phone or tablet, Saffo and others say.
Jo De Boeck, CTO of Imec, a Belgium-based think tank that specializes in smart electronics and renewable energy, envisions homes festooned with robots, smart meters and lighting, magic mirrors to view how you might look in your ensemble, and smart-device hubs. He sees digital refrigerators and interactive medicine cabinets that will be able to monitor what you eat as well as your energy management. Oh, and a driverless car or two in the garage.
“It’s kind of Big Brother, yes,” says De Boeck. Though he notes that perhaps that’s the cost of keeping you healthy while saving money.
And what futuristic home would be complete without a robot of some sort? Well, robots are slowly marching into homes in the form of toys and servants, acting as modern-day R2-D2s of Star Wars fame.
Bossa Nova Robotics is developing a robot maid modeled after The Jetsons’ Rosie for less than $5,000. Sarjoun Skaff, co-founder and chief technology officer of the San Francisco company, predicts that within 10 years, general-purpose robots — at $25,000 to $30,000 per unit — will perform house chores while people are at work. Or imagine one serving as a butler at a cocktail party. Technology developed at Carnegie Mellon University and at scores of robotics start-ups are clearly moving in that direction.
The kitchen, in particular, will be a model of futuristic living. Flexible displays will be built into ovens, refrigerators and dish washers to tell consumers everything from the optimum temperature to cook certain dishes to whether leftovers in the refrigerator are spoiled.
Chips embedded in appliances will store recipes and cooking instructions, says Paolo Bertazzoni, whose company’s free-standing Bertazzoni cooking suite comes with The Assistant, which stores settings for recipes and instructions. The Assistant, now available, helps cooks create a personal library of recipes and instructions, from an LCD display inspired by iPhone.
Samsung says its chief competitive strategy for the appliances division is to leverage its expertise in mobile technology by manufacturing as many “connected” devices as possible. For example, you’ll be able to start baking — via smartphone — while you’re en route to home from work. You’ll also be able to adjust the temperature settings of the refrigerator using your phone.
Beyond the kitchen, a home office might include a Telepresence-type device for real-time meetings, via a TV screen, with anyone in the world — a critical innovation as more people telecommute.
“The living room has gone from nothing to everything at once,” Fanhattan’s BianRosa says. “There is no simple path from niche technology to mainstream.”
In the years ahead, the biggest home-buyer considerations might not be one-story or two-story, city or suburb. Consumers might also have to decide between a Microsoft home or an Apple enclave, Saffo and others say.
Consumers are facing choices from:
• Microsoft. In May, the software behemoth trotted out an operating system designed to turn homes into live-in computers.
HomeOS intends to stitch together set-top boxes, game consoles, wireless routers, home-automation devices, tablets, smartphones and security cameras.
The objective is simple: combine smart devices under an umbrella, where they can share files, be synced, secured and fixed.
Microsoft also envisions a HomeStore app to handle it all, with apps designated for certain rooms and tasks.
• Google. Last year it unfurled Android@Home, an ecosystem for managing every electric home device, from thermostats and lights to exercise bikes.
The service essentially turns one’s home into an Android accessory, controllable from an Android device such as a tablet, or “hub,” managed by simple apps and connected over wireless links.
“It is pretty clear that inexpensive, powerful devices connected to the cloud are here today and will be here tomorrow,” says Scott Huffman, vice president of Google’s mobile search.
• Apple. Apple is seeking to fulfill the late Steve Jobs’ grand vision of a digital living room populated with Apple devices.
The company has been busy patenting an energy-management system that uses intelligent power-line networking to measure and control which home devices are consuming power.
Apple, as always, has been coy about its specific plans. But it’s conceivable a beefed-up version of iCloud could form the spine of an Apple-enabled smart home, connecting Apple products — including TV, perhaps — to light switches and thermostats made by others. And all of it might be commanded by the familiar voice of Siri.
• Security providers. As more household appliances have wireless connections to a phone or tablet, security and privacy from digital viruses and scams will increasingly become paramount, says Eugene Kaspersky, CEO and co-founder of security company Kaspersky Lab.
That will necessitate costly home-security systems that monitor doors and windows; stream live video to phones; control appliances based on behavior or schedule; and change home utilities such as air conditioning, heat and electricity based on the location of the people who live in the home, says Kevin Raposo, a blogger for SimpliSafe, a wireless home-security system.
Wireless technology has been a game-changer to the point where “in 15 years nearly everything in our home will be controlled with the swipe of a finger on a screen” no matter where you are, says Raposo.
• Nest and other shiny, new smart home tech apps, such as ZigBee. Cable providers Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon aren’t just cranking out services for TV, phones and the Internet. They’re delving into something called “Fifth Play,” which lets homeowners monitor and control energy use, security, temperatures and more. Such snazzy devices could be controlled via smartphone or remote control by a “Home Control Box.”
The Nest Learning Thermostat is one of several new thermostats — Tado is another, gaining traction in Europe — that let you use your smartphone to change the temperature, even if you’re not home.
“There is this Jetsons-like dream that this will happen all of a sudden,” says Nest CEO Tony Fadell, the former senior vice president in Apple’s iPhone/iPod division. “But there are a lot of do’s and don’ts.”
When Fadell decided in 2006 to build a “dream house” near Lake Tahoe, Calif., it was the stuff of “geeky guys,” as he put it. But fantasy and reality took divergent paths, and the house wasn’t completed until 2011. “You don’t press one button and everything happens; it takes time,” Fadell says. “Look at General Magic (a technology similar to iPhone that preceded it by 20 years ago). “This stuff evolves. It takes time and money.”
Setting a home standard
As usual, the devil is in the details. And the details for the future often reside in standardization. If all these home gizmos are to work in concert, it’s imperative that a computerized standard be established to piece them together and ease installation havoc for developers and consumers.
“It’s not just about devices, but the ability for those devices to share data,” Google’s Huffman says.
“As a consumer, you almost have to pick a stack,” says Mick Hollison, vice president of marketing at Citrix, which designs technology for employees to work remotely.
“Whoever figures out the way to create an open fabric to plug in all the different devices (from vendors such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and others) wins the day,” says Hollison, who used to run Microsoft’s home of the future but is now an unabashed Apple fan.
Standardization is just as important for traditional home appliance makers such as Bertazzoni, the family-owned Italian maker of high-quality ranges, cook tops, ventilation hoods and accessories.
“The key for us is, how do we blend technology and the timeless art of cooking?” asks CEO Bertazzoni. “There must be a balance. It usually comes down to simple icons and directions.”
And simple is essential when technology is changing the world not just for the select few, but for the masses.
“It’s all about making people’s lives easier,” Red Hat Software CEO Jim Whitehurst says, invoking home inventions of the past, such as microwaves, advanced lighting systems and home entertainment centers.
“The explosion of broadband destroys old business models,” Whitehurst says. “The car will sync to the cloud. You will adjust your home’s temperature, lights, security from an app. Robots will serve you. These are exciting times.”