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FROM THE 21ST CENTURY / Three Visions of Domestic Bliss

Whatever You Want, Whenever You Want

Jon Edwards' Experimental House Uses a Computer Network to Link Digital TV, Video Equipment, Stereos and Refrigerators. Is This the Ultimate in Homeowner Fantasies?

May 16, 1999|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz last wrote for the magazine about Rodney King

Villa Verona, a unique experimental home at the Pacific Design Center, has many comfortingly nostalgic touches: a bust of a Greek philosopher, framed photographs of Bing Crosby and Harold Lloyd, terra-cotta floors, a four-poster bed beside an ersatz hearth. But all these retro trappings belie what lurks behind the walls: 2,000 feet of cable, telephone, coaxial and fiber-optic lines four strands thick that connect a computerized system capable of detecting a 5 a.m. SigAlert and waking you early to beat the traffic, or closing the drapes as the sun rises, or forcing your 11-year-old to turn off the TV and do homework when you're not home, or alerting you to a security breach while you're vacationing overseas.

Jon Edwards is co-designer of this intriguing, and for some, no doubt, unsettling glimpse of the near future. He works at the Villa Verona IdeaHouse almost daily, and is understandably capable of mustering great enthusiasm for computer devices and "ultra-home" cabling. "The 3Com ISDN LAN /modem--have you seen this bad boy?" Edwards asks on a guided tour at which he looks the part of a visionary, his shaved head topped by a velveteen cap, his slight smile framed by a neat goatee.

With a background in computer graphics, animation and visual effects, Edwards can claim involvement in "literally introducing computer animation into Hollywood" in 1980 for the Disney movie "Tron." From there he designed some early interactive laser discs and ran a screening facility in Hollywood. More recently, as president of Sunset Studios, a media systems integration firm, Edwards designed multimedia boardrooms for corporations and home-screening rooms for the estates of film executives and celebrities. Co-designing since 1988 with associate Serge Quintanar, Edwards has become demonstrably fascinated with the digital transition in the home and how we're reacting to these different signals.

At Villa Verona, the household's computer network links digital television, video equipment, sound devices, washers, dryers, refrigerators and so on, as well as controls such traditional home elements as lighting, climate and security. Remarkably, all of it is done with available technology, although at prices beyond the reach of most homeowners. Indeed, the chief purpose of Villa Verona is to show builders, designers and home buyers the possibilities in hopes of spurring enough demand on the mass market to bring prices down. For that reason, leading computer and electronics makers have helped fund its creation.

As with any digital system geared for mass consumption, the nuts and bolts of Edwards' house are less thrilling than the practical effects, most of which tend toward automation and routines reflecting the homeowner's personal preferences. Edwards sketches out a typical pre-programmed routine: "I come home from work and hit a button that will [by speech synthesis] automatically start telling me any e-mails I have. It will automatically start the music of a preset CD at a preset volume that I've programmed in, turn on the lighting to a preset level, and get the Jacuzzi going."

Throwing a dinner party? The system can do your planning by drawing on database information, either from the Internet or provided in advance by the guests, on each invitee. Greg hates tomatoes? Tom allergic to corn? Ryan won't eat broccoli? "You can automatically download the kind of food that they like and put together a menu based on collective likes and dislikes," Edwards explains.

At bedtime, you switch to sleep mode, which cuts off all lights outside of the bedroom and all appliances that should not be continuously on. The program also unfurls the drapes and snaps the window blinds to block out the morning sunlight. If a motion detector senses you stirring between midnight and 5 a.m., the household command center switches on a dimly lit path to illuminate your trek to the bathroom. In the morning, the household software confers with traffic reports over the Internet, so that if there's a SigAlert on the Century Freeway, the alarm clock will wake you up an hour and a half early, and you'll have no excuse to be late to work.

In vacation mode, the boiler will automatically turn itself down and lights will switch on and off in random patterns instead of set hours to provide the illusion that someone is home. Should a motion sensor go off while the family is in Milan, the system will send an e-mail message to the traveling laptop, along with real-time images from the security camera.

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