At home with Microsoft’s vision of the future

RFID tags and wireless networks are among the drivers of Redmond's roadmap for domestic technology. Eric Lai reports

The latest remodel of the Microsoft Home, the software maker’s techno-fuelled vision of domestic accoutrements of the future, doesn’t have any robot butlers or any flying cars parked in the driveway.

But what it does showcase is a variety of smart appliances, from lamps to interactive wallpaper, that can be controlled by tablet PCs or cellphone-wielding residents.

Microsoft recently showed off the Home, located on its Redmond, Washington campus.

First built in 1994 at a different location, the Home is stocked with technology that has been refreshed every few years. In the latest edition, not a single desktop or even laptop computer was displayed. Rather, Microsoft officials assume that computing power, mesh networking and thin LCD and OLED screens will become so cheap and ubiquitous that residents will be able to interact with computers from anywhere in the home.

The community mailbox outside tracks the mailman’s location using GPS, and users can get a real-time estimate of when mail will arrive on the mailbox display or by cellphone. RFID tags embedded into envelopes even detail what mail is on the way.

Visitors who ring the front doorbell have their picture taken by a digital camera. The photo is sent, along with a notification, to the cellphone of the homeowner, who can quiz the visitor or unlock the door. Upon entering, the visitor or homeowner can issue commands to the Home computer system, which in this case is named “Grace”, or they can tap touch-sensitive OLED screens hidden under the wall’s paint. A sculptural light display in the corner flickers red to indicate when email from a favourite sender — say, parents, children or siblings — has arrived.

Meanwhile, a bulletin board in the kitchen has been updated for the digital age. Pin a party invitation onto its smart surface and information read from its RFID tag prompts the question: “Accept invitation, yes or no?” to be displayed below it. Or place a pizza coupon onto the board and the restaurant’s menu and phone number are displayed, the latter of which can be called with a tap on the board.

Jonathan Cluts, director of customer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft, predicts that RFID tags will become ubiquitous because of low cost and the ability to program and print them out at home using ink-jet printers with polymer-filled cartridges.

In the Home, a girl’s bedroom features a mirror that doubles as a screen. By holding clothes up to it, she can get information about them, including whether matching items like a skirt or jacket are in the closet or the wash. Meanwhile, wallpaper now being developed by companies such as Philips serves as a giant display for pictures from a MySpace page or even video.

The network that enables such ubiquitous connectivity relies on both wired and wireless technology. The physical cabling is not the key enabler, Cluts says. Rather, it is the IP-based network, which uses web services protocols developed by Microsoft over the years, that links all the electronic devices in the Home.

Though Cluts says there is no cap on how much his team can spend on these prototype homes of the near future, Microsoft does try to include only high-end technologies that it believes will cost consumers six years from now about the same as their mainstream equivalents today.

One example was the 2000 version of the Microsoft Home, when Cluts demanded, over protests, that no televisions or monitors with cathode-ray tubes be allowed.

“People thought we were crazy because regular-size plasma TVs were selling for US$30,000 (NZ$45,000),” says Cluts. “Now, a 65-inch screen plasma television costs less than US$10,000.”

Microsoft doesn’t claim to be IT prescient, he says. Some of the technology, such as a digital home entertainment centre displayed in the 2000 Home, leads directly to products from Microsoft. In that case, the Media Centre versions of Windows XP emerged. Others, such as video-on-demand technology in the original 1994 home, never make it as products.

“It’s like with a concept car,” he says. “Sometimes we make a [Chrysler] PT Cruiser. Sometimes we just make a hunk of glass and metal."

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