net.wars: The ideal home show

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 October 2004

It took a cartoonist to show us how limited and unimpressive technology companies' ideas are when it comes to smart houses. The cartoonist is, of course, Scott (Dilbert) Adams.

Wendy M Grossman

This week Adams unveiled Dilbert's Ultimate House. Also this week, Microsoft rented a fancy apartment by Lambeth Bridge, equipped it with a Savoy-trained butler, and tried showing off the company's idea of a digital home.

In one sense, Microsoft's stuff is well done. Integrate the phones, turn your PC into a media server, dump as much as you like onto a portable device (made by Creative), and tell your TV to record an entire TV series with two clicks. Very nice. It's only the nasty part of me that carps because the demented three-year-old who took over our computers (My Computer, My Documents) is now rampaging around the entire house (My Music, MY Pictures, MY VIDEOS). I mean, come on, you guys in Redmond. Who else's would they BE? But I digress.

Is this really as far as we've gotten in the 50 years since Ray Bradbury described his automated home? Sending music, email, pictures, and video to any TV in the house, and forwarding phone calls? The stuff is certainly very well done and it's all available right now, where IBM's Austin smart house, which I saw last summer, is more work-in-progress trying to look into how we could leverage consumer electronics and pervasive networking.

Scott Adams and the 100,000 readers who responded to his call for idea show us, though, how mundane our thinking still is. IBM's house, for example, consults municipal water restrictions to schedule sprinkler times. That's nice, but let's face it: what we really want is no sprinklers. I'm not sure I agree with the Dilbert's astroturf solution - I've played tennis on it, and it gets very soggy very quickly when it starts to rain. But then, I've never understood the appeal of lawns anyway. If you can't use them to show off that you can afford gardeners to take care of them, they're an awful lot of work for no particular reward. I like dumping the formal dining room in favour of a home office, wiring closets, and an exercise space from which you can see the TV, and making the house pre-emptively wheelchair-ready is definitely smart, forward thinking.

In some cases, though, you can see that even Dilbert readers aren't thinking differently enough. Why have multiple hampers with white and colour sections? Why not just have five washing machines, or however many it takes, into which you sort clothes directly? Then you also have backups if one breaks down; it's only space and money. The washing machine should know when it's full and offer to run itself for you. Similarly, while a built-in, pull-down ironing board with plug and shelf all integral is nice, my mother had that 40 years ago. What you want is a dryer that hangs up or folds your shirts for you before any creases settle in.

Over dinner, several of us decided, though, that what we really want in a high-tech home is movable walls. I, for example, would like to be able to knock out all the walls in the tiny rooms of my London apartment most of the time so I can have a feeling of real space, restoring them when guests visit so the bedrooms can be made private.

Another thing we all thought we'd like is changeable colours, inside and out. Inside, because it gets boring to look at the same pale teal every day for seven years. Outside, because it would be very handy to turn the house white in summer, so it would reflect the heat and stay cooler, and dark in winter, so it would absorb the sun and stay warmer. One possibility for doing this might be micromirrors that could be tilted the way they are in today's digital projectors. But perhaps a clever chemist could devise a paint that would react to both light levels and temperature and adjust its shade appropriately.

Another Dilbert idea - the quiet room you can throw the kids in so you can think (this does not tackle the problem of finding children who will stay in such a room) is backwards for my crowd. They want homes designed such that inside you cannot hear any noise from the outside at all. Plus, an acoustically designed music room. The old kind of music room, where people play their own instruments, rather than the current interpretation that assumes everyone wants a perfect sound system.

And that's the thing. Only part of designing a truly smarter home is about technology. Some is about money: the more of it you have the more likely you are to be able to build from scratch with enough space for the five washing machines, the two dishwashers (one clean, one dirty), and the two cooking spaces I'd like (one compact and convenient for everyday use; one large and spacious for catering for parties). Some is about lateral thinking. Unfortunately, for most of us, most of it is about fitting our lives into the limitations of existing dwellings. And these are so limited that maybe shipping MY VIDEOS to all those TVs is the most innovative thing we're going to be able to do in our lifetime.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).