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AT HOME IN THE FUTURE

You can talk to your television — but t already knows what you want

The home of the future will be a cathedral to the idea of net-worked convenience. PC-style devices will smoothly, automatically control your heating and lighting, while sound and pictures will be streamed into the house via a broadband Internet connection. In the future, few people will buy music on CDs or films on DVD. Why bother when you can access your desired form of entertainment via the menu displayed on your flat, wall-hanging plasma TV screen?

Voice-recognition technology will become ubiquitous. People will think nothing of talking to various appliances around their home. Microwave-based vending machines in the kitchen will allow Trekkies (yes, the future will still have Trekkies) to request “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” without any sense of irony.

During 2000, we have learned that hard drive-based personal video services such as TiVo can record specific programs for their owners via a simple “preference engine.” In the near future, such preference engines will be integrated into our domestic servers, creating a “smart home” that not only knows which temperature you prefer at a particular time of year, but also which light levels should be provided in certain rooms and which music should be piped to different locales at different times of the day.

It could be commonplace for this smart house to “recognize” its owner through Blue-tooth enabled ID bracelets/tags or coded pocket PCs. Expect your future house to personally greet you with a cheery “Welcome home, Dave,” when the front door is opened. This might just as easily be a screamed “Danger, Will Robinson!” warning if an unauthorized intruder breaks in. In such an instance our smart house could not only shut itself down, trapping the interloper, but dial out for police assistance at the same time. Perhaps the hapless intruder would be savaged by a resident robot guard dog!

Certainly, within 10 years average people can count a robot as part of the family. To see what such a creation might offer we need only look to Sony’s groundbreaking robo-pooch, AIBO (that’s Japanese for friend or companion). Already in its second generation, the AIBO has become more sophisticated and interactive.

Amanda Behrend, public-relations manager for Sony UK, says, “One of the big innovations on our second generation AIBO is voice recognition. When the robot reaches the child stage it requests a name which it will then respond to. It has a vocabulary of 50 words which it can recognize, including sit, dance, play ball. Its ears move around, which adds to the number of expressions it has, and it has more sensors than before. Additional sensors in the head allow it to recognize if it is being stroked or tickled under its chin.”

Perhaps the most. significant refinement is the inclusion of a video camera in its eye. This camera can grab low-resolution images that can be saved to a memory stick device, which can then be read by a computer.

This imaging ability will evolve rapidly. Within the next decade your robotic pet could also double as your digital camera, relieving you of the need to take pictures altogether. And there’s no real reason your robotic pal should look like a dog. It could just as easily resemble a small, two-legged human: a photo-pal, if you will.

And in the house of the future, don’t expect to spend hours sitting at a PC workstation. Much of the functionality of the traditional PC will migrate to handheld computers that Says Roger Kermisch, general manager of Handspring International, “In the very near future, the traditional PDA will evolve from pocket organizer to personal communicator. You will be able to talk to someone and even to see them through your handheld. Soon, there will be more connections to the Internet from handhelds than there will be from PCs.

And when wireless broadband and affordable wireless service arrives you will be able to deliver video on the move, to provide the type of capabilities you only see in James Bond movies today. Welcome home.