May/June 2007 Editorial: My House of the Future?

Posted by Home Energy on June 19, 2007
May/June 2007 Editorial: My House of the Future?
Nothing frightens me more than those model “homes of the future.” I recently visited one of them—the “ConnectedLife” home—at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The ConnectedLife concept is a joint creation of Microsoft, HP, LifeWare, and many others; the ConnectedLife hardware and software is available at Best Buy. The home sported all of the features that you would expect from these companies: coordination of all of the TVs and audio streams to lighting, HVAC, and security. “One remote, six main function keys. Navigation: easy.” If only life were that simple. The CES model was unusual in that trained actors acted out skits to demonstrate the numerous features, from the housewife pulling up the recipes electronically to the son zoning out in media overload. It was certainly an entertaining hour, watching the actors interact with the ConnectedLife system and (it seemed) none of their family members. But the energy reality hit us on the way out, when we passed the equipment room needed to service the connected life. Server Farm would be a better name for the equipment room since perhaps half a dozen servers were humming away in it. And all this running on Microsoft XP.

I can’t recall if the ConnectedLife staff claimed that their system would save energy, but they certainly promised no-fuss thermostat setbacks and lighting switch-offs. I keep thinking about the problems of upgrading to Microsoft Vista, and if adding a new light would be less excruciating than adding a printer to a computer system today. Energy Star recently noted that a signifi cant fraction of the population is unable to program a thermostat. What will happen when one of those people moves into a ConnectedLife home?

I also visited a prototype future home in Korea. This home was designed by a subsidiary of Samsung. In the United States Samsung is known for its electronics, but in Korea it also builds homes. The startling aspect of this home was its reliance on the mobile telephone. Samsung assumed that all occupants would have their own mobile phones—not a bad assumption in phone-crazy Korea—and that they would carry them around the house. The phone would signal the owner’s location to a network of sensors. Initially, the person would phone in his or her preferred conditions (Warmer, please! or Darker!). This information would allow the home’s central computer to select that person’s favorite temperatures and lighting levels as he or she wandered from room to room.

The Samsung home introduced me to a new residential technology: the radio frequency identifi cation device (RFID). Samsung’s vision involved massive application of these chips—they cost about $1 apiece now but will probably fall in price—to simplify household tasks. The home demonstrated two applications of the RFID technology—sorting laundry and helping to fi nd a misplaced book. I like the idea of eliminating orphan socks, but I wonder if I would ever get around to inserting an RFID in every object that enters my home.

Samsung wisely never showed us its home’s equipment room, so I don’t know if it was as large as that in the ConnectedLife house. On the other hand, I thought I detected some software glitches—again on XP—so that certain displays needed to reboot.

Both homes seemed designed to demonstrate that the future home will contain many more displays, ranging from palmsize minidisplays to displays covering a whole wall. Samsung and ConnectedLife may be right on this one, since the digital picture frame, a display that shows digital images and looks like a picture frame, appeared to be very popular in Las Vegas.

It’s easy to criticize homes of the future as being all techno-glitz, but they do help us imagine a lifestyle different from the one we live today. I certainly gained new insights from both of these homes. And for better or worse, I expect that I will see some of these features in my next home. I still don’t look forward to upgrading my house’s operating system, though.

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