The Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro — the Tech cutie — had a tour of Microsoft’s demo smart home. It sounds like a wacky sci-fi future, but is any of it really necessary… or desirable?
The basic idea behind the Microsoft Home is personalizing a dwelling so it responds to its occupants and their tastes — “making things mine,” said John O’Rourke, senior director of Microsoft’s consumer strategy division.
So when the house learns that it’s you at the door and not the FedEx guy, it knows to welcome you by opening the blinds, turning on the lights and playing the music of your choice.
Small touch-screen consoles on the walls allow fingertip control of those settings, as well as quick access to the images picked up by in-house cameras. For some reason, the clock on the first such console was an hour off.
The house also can be controlled by voice commands, but a Microsoft rep had to rephrase his command to get the blinds to open.
The family room’s plasma TV — like other sets in the house — is a monitor that allows access to all the entertainment and information on the home network, including movies, music, photos and everybody’s schedules, collected from such different sources as the computer servers at the parents’ workplaces and a kid’s Hotmail calendar.
The plasma TV also features this status report: “Grandma is having a normal day.”
How did it know that? Because it talked to her home, which — with her permission — tracks her use of the computers there to make sure she’s OK.
The microwave has a bar-code scanner, permitting it to identify the frozen foods you’re about to throw in, look up their heating directions online and execute them precisely. When it’s done, it can send a message to your phone or handheld organizer.
The fridge includes an “RFID” sensor that looks for the radio-frequency ID tags that are supposed to be included in the packaging of countless consumer items in the coming years. This way, the fridge knows what’s inside it.
… Place a bag of flour next to a food processor, and the food processor’s RFID sensor will notice the new arrival and alert the home’s computers. A voice then warbles: “Would you like some assistance?” (Yes, this reminded me of the talking paperclip in old versions of Microsoft Word.)
Say “recipes” and the system then dims the lights so it can project a list of flour-based recipes on the countertop — and remind you that you’re out of chocolate chips.
… I’m not worried that these dreams of home automation won’t come to pass — I’m worried that they will.
These networked-home systems will be reasonably priced, and they’ll work fine during the in-store demo.
It won’t be until you’ve had everything installed that you realize that the kitchen’s automated inventory management doesn’t work with the produce you buy at the farmers’ market (and besides, the technology is not appreciably easier than just looking in the pantry). Your media server computer will think you’re trying to steal a movie when you want to take a copy to a vacation house. When you add some other vendor’s hardware or software to the system, things start to break.
Demonstrations like Microsoft’s are fun and thought-provoking, but the entire computer industry needs to do a much better job of making its products painless to use before it earns the right to spread from one desk to the rest of the home.
You know, none of the things that Rob talks about in this futuristic home seem to be very useful, apart from spying on grandma. For example, I’m sure that it would be incredibly annoying to have lights light, blinds open, and whatnot when I got home. I am not an automaton, and don’t think that I want exactly the same ambiance to be established every day when I get home. I can open the blinds myself rather than have motors and circuits boards installed to do it. I certainly don’t need the refrigerator to tell me what’s in it, that’s why it has a door. I don’t quite understand what all these devices are supposed to accomplish. Haven’t we learned that technological advancements in these areas do not save time? How many of us spend hours every day dealing with that time-saving e-mail that’s flooding our desks? Or spending twice as much time typing a letter in Microsoft Word than we would have if we used a typewriter?
What happens when your house crashes? After all, it’s a Microsoft product.