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August

Summer Reading Special:
There's No Place Like Home

Homebodies in 2010 will have the whole world literally at their fingertips--assuming that OC-192 pipeline finds its way to the front door.
By Meg McGinity
Meg McGinity is an associate editor at tele.com. Her e-mail address is mmcginit@teledotcom.com .

The 2010 Infinitrak utility vehicle--the best and newest ride that electronic currency can buy--rolls into the carport just as Bob finishes listening to the latest reports on his financial portfolio. The car's sensor system brings the vehicle to a halt, the engine shuts off, and the door opens. Bob gets out and stretches his back a little, thinking about how much more comfortable his ride will be in a couple of years, when those wireless guidance systems finally are in place and completely self-driving cars are road-ready.

"You have seven new data files, two messages from work, and a notice to renew your technology insurance." Bob barely glances at the Watchvision on his left wrist to see Martha, his bespectacled holographic personal assistant, as she gives him his communications report. Bob thanks Martha for the update, tells her to renew the insurance, and her image promptly dissipates.

Bob walks the few steps from his carport to the entrance of his home, a 4,000-square-foot building made of aluminum and Plexiglas salvaged from recycled cars. He looks up at the solar panels and the 14-foot cellular antenna on his roof. The antenna trigg ers a childhood memory--Bob thinks back to the first time he used a cell phone. Back then, all you could do was place a voice call to someone. Bob shakes his head and wonders how people managed to do anything in those days.

As Bob walks up to his front door, the cornea scanner sends out a laser beam to validate his identity, and the metal doorway slides open immediately upon recognition. Just last year, Bob remembers, he had to put his hand up to the digital scanner, which would take some 45 seconds to read his fingerprint pattern. The cornea scan is a huge time-saver.

The door shuts behind Bob, and one second later he sees something coming toward him from the other side of the room. It's Kato, his effervescent pet--actually, a robopal, an intelligent mobile networking device encased in lifelike biomaterials. Bob reaches out to acknowledge Kato. After 30 seconds of friendly play, Kato notes a stressful expression on Bob's face and backs away from his master.

"Come with me, Bob," Kato says in a slightly mechanical voice. "It's time to unwind." Kato leads Bob through the main room to the rejuvenation cell, a room equipped with a multimedia center, including PCvision, a flat-panel videoscreen five feet high, five feet wide, but only three inches thick. A console in the rejuvenation cell takes a reading of Bob's biorhythms. The reading indicates that Bob is feeling a bit melancholy. To fight the blues, Bob requests a video from simpler times--the early 1990s, Bob's childhood years. The multimedia center's intelligent computer, able to process a terabit of information per second, delves into Bob's archives and retrieves a suitable sitcom.

Before starting the show, Bob visits his digital gallery--a hallway of flat-panel screens displaying the masterpieces of the world, rendered in digital form. For today's viewing, Bob chooses a sampling from Pablo Picasso's blue period. The request is sent over Bob's new OC-192 (thank heaven for wavelength-division multiple xing!) Internet connection to the nearest virtual gallery server. Almost instantly, Bob's wall is awash in abstract azure, the appropriate download fee deducted automatically from his e-debit account.

Suitably soothed by the virtual masterworks, Bob makes his way to the multimedia viewing area. "Martha, let's go over those files and messages," he says, prompting the holographic assistant to make another appearance. One by one, Martha gives Bob a description of each data file and message in his personal in-basket, and one by one Bob tells Martha how to handle or respond to each item. Bob instructs Martha to block real-time communication for two hours, then he settles in front of PCvision to watch the show.

The images again remind Bob of his younger days. When he was a kid, 60 channels of programs were all he had to choose from. And you couldn't even request any shows you wanted to see--you just had to settle for what someone else decided you should watch. Bob just shakes his head when he thinks about that, and about how so many older kids today are turning away from technology. Cultural rebels--just like their grandparents were in the 1960s. They'll learn, Bob muses.

About 20 minutes into the digital presentation, Bob decides he's had enough. "Hold," he commands, and the PCvision freezes its image immediately and then fades to black. Bob leaves the rejuvenation room, walks down the hall, and goes into the physical fitness room. A quick visit to the health console gives his virtual physician an instant read on Bob's blood pressure and cardiac health. "Your vital signs are normal," announces CyberDoc, Bob's personal disembodied physician. "Remember to exercise today."

"Let's hit the slopes," Bob says, activating the fitness console to retrieve the Advanced Ski Trails program from the nearest network server. E-cash payment in hand, the server downloads a selection of virtual Swiss Alps courses--Zermatt is Bob's favorite. Bob sli ps on his virtual reality suit and steps into his stationary skis. The instant he dons his VR goggles, he's standing on a sunny, snow-covered mountain peak, the simulated wind and cold stimulating him through the sensors in his VR suit. A few minutes of schussing has Bob at his target heart rate.

Bob's thoughts quickly turn to something else: dinner. He goes to the kitchen and opens the thermolator--a state-of-the-art appliance with compartments that sense whether stored items should be kept cold or at room temperature. He notices that he's running low on soy protein, nutrified water, and electrolytes, and he has only one prepared freeze-dried meal left. He reaches for the kitchen scanner and runs the wand over the bar codes on each of those items. The readings are automatically relayed to TechFood for processing. Within 12 hours, the pantry will be fully restocked based on Bob's preselected food preferences, once more with his e-cash account appropriately tapped to pay the grocery bill. Bob again thinks back to simpler days, when his mother placed her grocery orders using an Internet service called Peapod. Mom was ahead of her time, but she still hasn't switched to TechFood because she says it limits her freedom of choice. Old habits die hard, Bob thinks.

Bob takes out the last remaining freeze-dried meal and pops it into a countertop oven. "Cook," he says. The oven's built-in scanner reads the package's bar code and kicks into action: Bob's favorite meal is ready in five minutes.

As Bob eats his meal, he checks his message center in the kitchen to see if there were any visitors to his home while he was out. On his tabletop video display unit, he then calls up the electronic newspaper, which has been tailored to suit his financial, political, and lifestyle interests. Bob watches, listens to, and even reads the latest news. Something in the world news section catches Bob's attention. He hyperlinks to his personal investment portfolio. Margie, Bob's virtual financial advise r, pops up on the screen. "Two hundred shares, Microsoft AT&T--sell," Bob says. Margie nods in agreement. "Shall I authenticate this trade for you?" she asks. Bob holds up his right elbow to a scanner next to the video terminal. The scanner reads the biochip inserted just under Bob's skin. "Your transaction is complete," Margie says.

Bob touches his right elbow, where the biochip is. He wonders if he will decide to have the chip replaced by a new design, one that fuses the chip's microprocessors directly to his nerve cells. The futurists say the new chip will eliminate the need to interact with computer screens. Several of Bob's friends already have signed up to beta-test the chip. But he's not convinced--he thinks too much technology may isolate him from the world. Leave it for the next generation, he thinks.

Just then, Bob feels a slight squeeze on his left wrist. "Do you want to check your e-debit balance?" Martha asks. "It has fallen bel ow your specified comfort level." The news surprises Bob, and he asks Martha to find the reason for the drain. The answer comes back quickly: "The monthly premium for your technology insurance has increased by 22 percent." Bob asks Martha to review the bill. A copy of the invoice pops up almost immediately on Bob's tabletop video display.

With all the circuits and bandwidth he's added to his home over the past year, the itemized tech insurance bill from his service provider is now 120 lines long. Bob knows he has to have that kind of coverage, though--a service brownout could bring his everyday life to a screeching halt. Bob remembers what happened to the Jamisons, the family who lived next door and who didn't have tech insurance. The Great Service Outage of 2008 cost them their whole financial portfolio. They had to sell their home and move to a poor neighborhood, where people don't have access to the best that technology has to offer.

But a 22 percent increase? Bob thinks about changing his service provider. Some of his friends have told him that relying on one provider for everything is risky, and that he could lower his payments by using different providers for different services. But Bob dismisses the thought. Now's not the time to complicate life, he decides.

***

This scenario is based on technology development timetables and predictions from the following sources: Ameritech Corp.; Bell Communications Research Inc. (Bellcore, Livingston, N.J.); Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT Laboratories; Paul Lambert, vice president of network technology at CompuServe Network Services (Columbus, Ohio); Peter Hortensius, senior manager of the personal systems department at IBM Research Division; Dawn Hogh, assistant vice president for market development at Lucent Technologies Inc.; MCI Communications Corp.; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Labs (Cambridge, Mass.); Rocco Fondacaro, senior manager of market research development at Northern Telecom Ltd.; Charles Ostman, science editor at Mondo 2000 magazine; and Scientific American magazine.

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