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The House of Today, Tomorrow

A tour of the technological wonders of the Microsoft Home, where the future looks familiar By Nancy Rommelmann

January 09, 2005|Nancy Rommelmann | Nancy Rommelmann writes from the West Coast on culture and food.

Designing domestic utopias is tempting. Some of the best minds of the 20th century did it, some more than once. Inventor-philosopher-mathematician R. Buckminster Fuller, grappling with the housing shortage in America after World War II, updated his earlier design for a Dymaxion House, a transportable, environmentally efficient aluminum dwelling that could be built for $6,500. A decade later, he pushed for the mass production of the geodesic dome, a "modern igloo" with a light yet strong tetrahedron skeleton. In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright planned a mile-high skyscraper, potentially solving two of the era's problems: A growing population could live perpendicularly on less real estate. The Monsanto House of the Future, which debuted at Disneyland in 1957, was made almost entirely of plastic and drew more than 5,000 visitors a day. "Imagine any other house having more than 20 million guests," went the audio part of the tour, "and still being able to boast the showroom freshness and sparkle you see here." And before his death in 1966, Walt Disney himself unveiled plans for EPCOT, an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow where 20,000 souls would ride monorails and hit golf balls in the Florida sunshine.

Sci-fi in appearance, rendered in mind-bending shapes and man-made materials, these early "smart houses" promised to make the average American's life more organized, economical and fun. They also told us something about ourselves: We were ready to embrace the future!

Except that most of us were not willing to move into an igloo. The problem with selling utopia was getting people to buy. While the geodesic dome has enjoyed marginal success, no one ever lived in a completed Dymaxion House. (A sole prototype survives at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.) Wright's tower was never built, the Monsanto House was razed in 1967 and EPCOT devolved into another Disney theme park.

Great minds are still designing dream houses. Karim Rashid's 2002 Ideal House, with its rubber baths and bio-engineered pink trees, has the look of an Atomic Age bachelor pad. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts volunteers in its PlaceLab, a home/laboratory wired with hundreds of "sensing components" to monitor how people interact with the environment, with the aim of developing interfaces that improve one's health and well-being. The Microsoft Home in Redmond, Wash., a showcase for the corporation's ever-evolving technologies, is updated every two years.

These visions of the future are still telling us something about ourselves. A tour of the Microsoft Home, for example, suggests that we want the lives we have today, with a lot less effort, starting when we walk in the front door.

"The first Microsoft Home was built in 1994--that's been torn down," says Jonathan Cluts, who runs the home's Consumer Prototyping and Strategy Team. Cluts and his group of 10--designers, physicists, engineers (audio, video and theoretical), writers and one former semipro soccer player--are less concerned with ones and zeros than with "thinking broadly about the future in the consumer space."

"But we're only looking five to 10 years in the future. There are no replicators here--it's not 'Star Trek,' " says Pam Heath, the team's lead program manager. She and Cluts walk through the Microsoft Executive Briefing Center, past a group of black-suited Japanese businessmen and a delegation from Australia, both of which will later tour what Heath simply calls "the Home" to see what's on the technological horizon.

Stopping before a set of standard white metal office doors, Cluts says, "There's going to be way more technology [in here] than probably any single person would have in any single home. We like to give the broadest range for people to experience to ferret out those things that work for them."

Sort of like a buffet? Cluts nods. "To see what things they put on their salad," he says.

"Or even if they eat salad," adds Heath. "If it's not easy, if it's not convenient, if it doesn't solve a real problem for you or make the stuff a lot more fun or help you stay close to people, you're not gonna have it in your life."

For instance, keys. Forget fumbling for them--there aren't even keyholes in the Home's front door. There is a square of opaque glass, against which you press your hand. "The size of one's hand and the length and connections between all the fingers is more unique than a single fingerprint," Cluts says. Since the Home recognizes his hand, the door opens with a soft click.

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