Microsoft Home Tour (© Hollenbeck Productions for MSN)

Home, Sweet Futuristic Home

By Andy Peterson, special to MSN Tech & Gadgets
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MSN Tech & Gadgets takes you on an exclusive tour of the Microsoft Home. Is this what your home could be like in 2015?

A shining steel, geodesic structure where food appears upon command, robots handle all manual chores and families in unisex jumpsuits gather around the hologram station before tucking themselves into their sterile sleeping pods for the night. Does this fit your general vision of the home of the future? Blame that on Hollywood. What might the average American home look like in the next few years? This big question floats around the Microsoft Home, situated within a building on the company’s main corporate campus in Redmond, Wash. The home’s mission: To explore ways technology could improve our daily lives in the near future.

Although the reporters, government officials and business partners have been granted visits before, the home is not open to the general public. But MSN Tech & Gadgets has been lucky enough to have been invited inside. So walk along with me to see, hear and feel how your home might treat you in the not-distant future.

I’m met on the modern Asian-style front porch of the home by Flora Goldthwaite, a program manager in the department of Consumer Prototyping and Strategy for Microsoft. Goldthwaite is quick to point out that the Microsoft Home is but one possible vision of what the average person’s home might be like in five to 10 years.

Grace is in the house
Goldthwaite places her palm on a glass panel by the front door. Her hand is scanned and recognized, and then we hear a loud click as the front door is unlocked.

As we enter the modest foyer, Goldthwaite turns a small dial on what appears to be a solid wall and a panel illuminates showing the current temperature and providing several options. The panel is an example of OLED (or organic light emitting diode) technology, and it looks like fireflies that know how to spell are lurking directly beneath the paint on the wall.

From this panel, Goldthwaite selects “Environment” from a short list that includes Information, People and Media. She selects “Welcome Home” from the next list of options and the lights come on within the home. Now we can hear the sounds of mellow jazz playing and the whirring of window blinds adjusting themselves.

“The home’s name is Grace,” Goldthwaite informs me. “Grace, what’s going on?”

And Grace answers.

Since she’s connected to all of the technology in the home, Grace “knows” the calendars and schedules of each family member. If they’re carrying cell phones or wearing a watch with GPS tracking, Grace can even tell you exactly where they are at the moment.

As the house comes to life, it’s remarkable how unremarkable everything looks. Sure, the furniture looks a little nicer than what I have, and it certainly is a little cleaner, but other than that, it seems so … normal.

A room to live in
Thanks to Grace, as we enter the living room, the large-screen plasma HDTV is already turned on and we can see the wide variety of media options that are available. We can watch TV from cable or satellite, access anything that we have stored on our PC, surf the Internet, or look at photos. Shared subscription services also allow us to access music and media from friends and family. We listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong as we continue with the tour.

“Less intelligent devices can benefit from the more intelligent devices in your home,” Goldthwaite explains, “When I select music I want to hear, the television’s speakers are automatically disabled and the music is played through the higher quality speakers in my home. If the doorbell rings and I need to answer it, the music automatically pauses. When I leave, the house knows—if I’m listening to Charlie Parker, it knows. When I turn on the media player in my car, it picks up the music right where I left off.”

While looking at a child’s table in the corner of the room, we’re introduced to Radio Frequency ID Tags, or SmartTags. Many large retail chains currently require manufacturers to use SmartTags in their products in order to help track and manage inventory. Sensors in the home are also able to read these tags in a number of ways—in this instance, to remind a child that a toy needs to be picked up and put away before he can move on to something else. If the toy isn’t picked up, the computer won’t be available for playing video games—and Grace doesn’t buckle under to whining.

Also: See the slide show of the Microsoft Home tour

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