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High-Tech @ Home

Visionaries see the house of tomorrow brimming with microprocessors and smart appliances. But will consumers really go for it?

By DAVE GUSSOW Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 21, 1999


Take a peek at home life, maybe not that many years down the road:

It's bedtime. Mom tells her alarm clock to wake her at the normal time, unless traffic's bad. Dad instructs his alarm clock to shut down the house. Lights go off, and the security system comes on.

The next morning, the alarm wakes the woman 30 minutes early, telling her of the traffic delays that required an early wake-up. The coffee is brewing. Her husband goes into the bathroom to shave. Sports scores flash on the mirror. He asks for video highlights, and a display appears on the mirror with his requested game.

In the kitchen, electronic messages appear on the refrigerator, including the family's schedule for the day. Later, the daughter comes home to see her name flashing on the door, with a voice message from Dad. Grandma calls, and her call is answered on the refrigerator then transferred to a convenient mirror. The trash can scans items as they are thrown away to create a shopping list. Members of the family carry around portable electronic tablets about the size of a book that provide information and Internet access.

It's not the Jetsons. It is Intel Corp.'s vision of how the microprocessor can change the way we do things around the house. Intel (www.intel.com) and other major companies are taking the power of the computer and moving it to other devices and appliances. Intel calls that network "Anywhere in the Home" and has made a video displaying its ideas.

"Today's PC in the den does not necessarily fit in with the hectic lifestyle closing in on the 21st century," said David Redelfs, Intel Corp.'s capability marketing manager.

If you just want to check a movie listing, it takes too much time to turn on a PC and wait for it to boot up. Consumers want the information and they want it fast. So the giant chipmaker is one of the companies leading the charge to spread computing power throughout a house.

It is more than a futurist's vision. In some cases, prototypes of some of these devices have been produced. But questions remain about when, how and if this vision will be realized:

Will consumers want the gadgets enough to pay for them? Will they want to check their e-mail or pay their bills at a terminal the whole family can see? Can the technology industry, which has a history of making user-unfriendly computers and devices that won't work well together, really make it happen? Will people be able to use these devices without rewiring their houses?

The answers may develop along with the gadgets, as the industry learns consumers' preferences and comfort levels. But it is not stopping the development of prototypes, such as refrigerators that not only store food but also allow Internet access and microwaves that cook and allow online banking and shopping. "Many vendors have concluded that this is the next major opportunity, so we will see the pace (of product development) accelerated going into the end of the year," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc., a high-tech consulting firm.

In this future world of the wired home, the kitchen remains the center. It is where families spend the most time, even if they do less cooking and eating there, as research shows.

"Cooking from scratch is diminishing," according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. (www.mckinsey.com). "Many consumers in 2005 will have never cooked a meal from basic ingredients."

Still, the kitchen serves as a message center. It may be the one room in the house that all family members pass through at some point during the day.

Frigidaire spokesman Tony Evans said that makes the kitchen the natural "point of access" for useful devices. "There's no point in technology for the sake of technology in these kinds of applications," he said.

Ellen Cheever, vice president of dealer development for Heritage Custom Kitchens in New Holland, Pa., once doubted that adding a computer to a kitchen would work: "You can have a cookbook on a stand next to the stove, but you can't run back and forth to a computer with an egg in your hand."

But more affordable flat-screen displays, connections between computers and TV, and shopping capabilities on the Web have changed her mind.

"It will work in the kitchen because, with the flat screen TV, we'll be able finally to build a TV into a normally sized kitchen cabinet or hang it on the wall," she said. "We're finally getting to the point where that electronic work will have a major impact on what we're doing."

Not everyone is sold on the idea of the networked home.

"These things are very, very difficult to make work right," said Martin Reynolds, a research fellow at Dataquest in San Jose, Calif. "There's a fine line between technology for technology's sake and technology for convenience's sake."

And opinions differ on which devices may be best suited for multiple uses.

The living room is fine for a couch potato activity such as watching TV, said Stephen Emmott, director of NCR's Knowledge Lab (www.knowledgelab.com) in London, but not for paying bills or shopping electronically. Those who champion TV-based devices such as WebTV for e-mail and electronic banking are missing a point that turned up in NCR's research:

"There are times and places people like to be passive and relax and be entertained," Emmott said. "The living room seems to be one of those places."

Form and function shape the ideas for networked appliances.

For example, the United States is one of the few countries where the refrigerator is big and tall, Emmott says. Building computer and Internet functions into a refrigerator doesn't make sense in countries where the appliance is only waist high.

The microwave, which has a keypad to punch in cooking instructions, is a natural for an upgrade to online access, Emmott said. "There's far more computing power in a microwave than a fridge."

Frigidaire's Evans says consumer preferences will decide which ideas prevail. For his part, he doubts people will want to bank or pay bills on a refrigerator terminal that is accessible and visible to everyone. Playing games on the fridge? Hardly. Those functions would be more likely on a desktop PC or a TV. A fridge-front message center for the family and individuals? Sure.

And "the online capability of ordering groceries and other merchandise is huge," Evans said. "I think what it's all about is time," giving people a chance to create lists easily, send orders out easily and have groceries or products delivered to them.

The more you think about it, Evans said, the more the possibilities grow.

It's even possible, Evans said, that a customer with a service problem on a refrigerator could have a technician at a service center give it an initial diagnosis online.

"We're staying away from any hint of making it complicated or anything like surfing the Web," Evans said.

Even if all these devices come to market, though, a major question remains: How will they be connected? The networked home of 1999 centers mostly on connecting a number of computers in a house. Kits for networking are on the market, including one from Intel. But a house full of gadgets would require a much more sophisticated system.

NCR's Emmott thinks we're at least five, more likely 10, years away from having most homes networked.

Most experts doubt that many people will want to go through the hassle and expense of rewiring their homes to connect gadgets. So companies are working on wireless connections and on ways to use existing wiring in the house.

Enikia Inc. (www.enikia.com) is seeking the answer in electrical outlets. Appliances and electronics would have added chips and functions built in, and the plug for the power would double as a data transmission line, according to associate product manager Ian O'Sullivan.

While only half of U.S. homes have PCs, O'Sullivan said, all have appliances and electronics. Electrical outlets, unlike phone jacks, are numerous throughout the house. The company, which has applied for patents on its technology, says home networks need to be easy, with no hassle for the consumer.

O'Sullivan says Enikia has overcome a "noise" problem on power lines -- such as when you turn a blender on and the TV picture flickers -- that could interfere with data transmissions.

The first appliances to appear on the market, he predicts, will be those in which consumers see the most value. A device that can save money, say by making a cheaper phone call over the Internet than by regular service, has early potential.

And who will be the first in line to buy these products?

"They will still be the traditional early adopters" who are willing to spend $400 to $1,000 extra for a refrigerator, consultant Bajarin said. "Techies, people who love gadgets."


-- Times Homes Editor Judy Stark contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires.

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