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Just how "smart" do you want your home to be?

Brave New Home 

Just how "smart" do you want your home to be?

The projected ideal home life of the future (remember George Jetson's conveyor belt, robot-assisted morning regimen?) is one in which humans spend less time on work, less time on household chores, as automation increasingly takes over.

But do we really want a digital, hooked-up lifestyle where our most important companion and tool will be our PC? Should technology determine our lifestyle, above a respect for the planet, "green" values and each person's sense of "home" as a place of personal expression, taste and spiritual needs?

Increasingly, modern consumers are looking for more than just a home stocked full of space-age innovations and dazzlingly efficient appliances. People want living quarters that improve the quality of both the environment and their emotional life--feng shui and eco-friendly home solutions--homes that seek to coexist with their environment, using materials local to the region, aiming at a new simplicity.

Recognizing that a sense of community is a good, even a necessary thing, one solution is the "new urbanism" approach--all-inclusive suburban communities modeled after the pre-industrial village. Just check out Southern Village outside Chapel Hill to see a work in progress: a community consisting largely of faux-urban row houses that has its own theater, grocery, recreation area and more. Or visit Celebration, Fla. Disney's eerily Stepford Wives-esque model community that, while "modern" in a technological sense, embraces an American ideal typified by the Cleavers. Of course, there's something very homogeneous, very white bread, about these communities. They seem to be a success story, but only for a privileged few.

Early 20th-century idealists, concerned with melding architectural aesthetics with the housing of an exploding population, came up with some fantastical theories about how to house mankind. From Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, to French architect Le Corbusier's vision of a "skyscraper utopia" of glass and steel--a fully functioning community within itself--to Frank Lloyd Wright's proposed "Mile-high Skyscraper," our future was thought to rise perpendicularly into the air. These Metropolis-style visions of a society living stacked into towering, hive-like apartment-cells were countered by cautionary tales--an Orwellian loss of privacy and individuality, the fear that technology could undermine our very humanity.

By the '60s, however, fear had fallen by the wayside. Americans were enjoying the post-war boom and building more homes than ever. We were enamored of all things "modern" and avidly followed the space race, sure that Jetsons-style living, complete with a Rosie-style robot maid or handy Star Trek gizmos like Captain Kirk's communicator (Hey! It flips open just like a cell phone!) were bound to be part of our post-millennial lives. Even "Uncle Walt" (Disney) got into the act with his plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Unfortunately, he died before it was built, and EPCOT turned out to be just another Disney theme park experience (with global snack options and slightly more exotic tchotchkes).

What happened?

Past predictions of what to expect in our futuristic home ranged from the harmlessly laughable--plastic home furnishings that could be cleaned by a thorough hosing down--to the surreal--General Motors' 1964 World's Fair "underwater city" exhibit. (Who would pass up a chance to stay at the Hotel Atlantis?) Otherwise-sane undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau was convinced--even addressing the World Congress on Underwater Activities--that humans would be able to surgically implant artificial gills in order to breathe underwater; he even used "aquanauts" to experiment with undersea living--a massive flop.

And heck, that was just homes on earth. Ever since we started sending people off to the Skylab space station in the '70s, scientists have been gearing up to colonize space; there are even plans for orbital hotels.

But right here on earth, the explosion of digital technology has led to so-called "smart" housing innovations: voice-activated appliances, homes that set their own thermostats and recognize their owners by "dog tags" or badges (used for unlocking doors, turning on lights and more). And while some homes boast such features, they don't exist to the extent predicted, mainly because the high-speed broadband connections needed to use the software haven't taken off as projected (although Microsoft's Bill Gates recently made an alliance with Samsung to develop home technologies calculated to produce an "entire ecosystem of PCs, digital devices, intelligent home appliances ... transform[ing] average households into next-generation digital homes").

So, while we're still not living a scene out of Disney's now-quaint "Homes of Tomorrow" exhibit, or popping Soma in a governmentally induced state of all's-well-with-the-world (a la Brave New World), there are some right handy little timesavers coming off the assembly lines of the world's appliance makers. For example, Sanyo just released "the world's first zero detergent" washing machine in Japan (it cleans by bombarding dirt with ultrasonic waves), and the Dyson appliance company is working on a robotic vacuum cleaner that uses sensors--all you have to do is press "go." Besides stopping for pets, children, stairs or other obstacles, the vacuum has a "mood" light that indicates if it's "happy" or not. Vacuums will "pound" carpets and furniture at a rate of 3,500 times a minute to eliminate allergens such as dust mites.

In Korea, LG Electronics recently unveiled their Internet refrigerator, complete with a computer screen, video camera and VCR. It'll keep track of the fridge's contents, look up recipes and tell you when different foods are going to expire, at which point you'll use the unit to order groceries online. (And forget those colors of yesteryear: avocado, harvest gold and almond, for example. Appliances will take on the look of Apple's iMacs: brightly colored transparent plastics.)

In the works: Windows that sense climatic changes or that go from opaque to clear on their own. "Interactive" wallpaper that you can alter to suit your mood. Furniture made out of "intelligent" materials that can change color and/or conform to shape. Your home's toilet will chemically sample your family's waste and report its findings to a central medical network or to your doctor. And, as far as garbage is concerned, the "Intelligent Garbage Can" will sort, compact and de-stenchify your refuse and waste. No word on whether it rolls itself out to the curb.

Of course, unless we all return to being simple artisans, shepherds or agrarians, we'll be lying in the bed that technology's made for us. The good news? It'll make itself up every morning.

EndBlock

  • Just how "smart" do you want your home to be?

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