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Microsoft unveils latest digital home

Not that much like The Jetsons

The latest remodel of the Microsoft Home, the software vendor's techno-fuelled vision of domestic accoutrements of the future, has no robot butlers nor any flying cars parked in the driveway.

But what it does showcase – and predict will be available to well-heeled cocooners five to 10 years hence – are a variety of smart appliances, from lamps to interactive wallpaper, that can be controlled by tablet PCs or mobile-phone-wielding residents.

Microsoft showed off the Home, located on its campus this week.

First built in 1994 at a different location, the Home is stocked with technology that has been refreshed every few years. In the latest edition, not a single desktop or even laptop computer was displayed. Rather, Microsoft officials assume that computing power, mesh networking and thin LCD and Oled (organic LED) screens will become so cheap and ubiquitous that residents will be able to interact with computers from anywhere in the home.

The community mailbox outside tracks the postman's location using GPS, and users can get a real-time estimate of when mail will arrive on the postbox display or by mobile phone. RFID (radio frequency identification) tags embedded into envelopes even detail what post is on the way.

Visitors that ring the front doorbell have their picture taken by a digital camera, which is sent along with a notification to the mobile phone of the homeowner, who can quiz the visitor or unlock the door. Upon entering, the visitor or homeowner can issue commands to the Home computer system, which in this case is named 'Grace'. Or they can tap touch-sensitive Oled screens hidden under the wall's paint. A sculptural light display in the corner flickers red to indicate when email from a favorite sender – say, parents, children or siblings – has arrived.

Meanwhile, a bulletin board in the kitchen has been updated for the digital age. Pin a party invitation on to its smart surface, and information read from its RFID tag causes the question "Accept invitation, yes or no?" to be displayed below it. Or place a pizza coupon on to the board and the restaurant's menu and phone number are displayed, the latter of which can be called with a tap on the board.

Jonathan Cluts, director of customer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft, predicts that RFID tags will become ubiquitous because of their low cost and the ability to program and print them out at home using ink-jet printers with polymer-filled cartridges.

In the Home, a girl's bedroom features a mirror that doubles as a screen. By holding clothes up to it, she can get information about them, including whether matching items such as a skirt or jacket are in the wardrobe or the wash. Meanwhile, wallpaper now being developed by companies such as Philips serve as giant displays for pictures from a MySpace page or even video.

The network that enables such ubiquitous connectivity relies on both wired and wireless technology. The physical cabling is not the key enabler, Cluts said. Rather, it is the IP-based network that uses web services protocols developed by Microsoft over the years that links all of the electronic devices in the home.

Though Cluts said there is no cap on how much his team can spend on these prototype homes of the near future, Microsoft does try to include only high-end technologies that it believes will cost consumers six years from now about the same as their mainstream equivalents today. One example was the 2000 version of the Microsoft Home, when Cluts demanded, over protests, that no CRT televisions or monitors be allowed.

"People thought we were crazy because regular-size plasma TVs were selling for $30,000," Cluts said. "Now, a 65in screen plasma television costs less than $10,000."

Microsoft doesn't claim to be IT-prescient, he said. Some of the technology, such as a digital home entertainment centre displayed in the 2000 Home, leads directly to products from Microsoft. In that case, the Media Center versions of Windows XP emerged. Others, such as the video-on-demand technology in the original 1994 home, or a 'smart' bin that could detect rubbish and alert homeowners about what to replenish, never make it as products.

"It's like with a concept car," he said. "Sometimes we make a [Chrysler] PT Cruiser. Sometimes we just make a hunk of glass and metal."


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