The house of the future may be smart, but will it be a scary, cold place?
Not to worry.
"I expect that the home of the future will look more like the home of the past than the home of today," says Stefano Marzano, managing director of Philips Design, a division of Philips Electronics.
Finally, some com- forting techno buzz from the people who are busily inventing consumer electronics that will revolutionize the way we live. Don't fear the coming digital infusion into your bedroom, kitchen and living room. After the shakedown period is over, say digital gurus, the house of tomorrow will feel like Donna Reed's den, not the command center of a Star Wars Naboo Royal Starfighter.
Philips, one of the world's largest companies, with sales of more than $33 billion in 1998, has put together an exhibition called "La Casa Prossima Futura" ("The Home of the Near Future"). The presentation showcases consumer products that are designed to discreetly anticipate our every need and improve the comfort and quality of our lives. What a relief. Imagine summoning a Mozart symphony with a voice command as we enter our home or glancing at a screen of financial information on the bathroom mirror while we shave.
The exhibit contains 50 prototypes that have been developed and redeveloped over the past six years to help gently connect the information superhighway to the domestic landscape.
It was first shown to international buyers and manufacturers in April at Milan's International Furniture Fair, where Philips hoped it would create a buzz in the global design culture. It did. Now Philips has decided to expand the exhibit and bring it to consumers. From Sept. 15 to Oct. 9, "The Home of the Near Future" will be on view at New York's Saks Fifth Avenue. The week before the exhibit, some of the prototypes will be featured in the store windows along Fifth Avenue, paired with futuristic fashions by designers such as Helmut Lang, Michael Kors and Donna Karan.
Coming to your casa and cul-de-sac are interactive tablecloths woven of washable linen that will power appliances placed on the table, and wall-mounted rechargeable Shaker-style peg rails that will store kitchen tools. Memo boards will provide a digital family command center: a place to pin up party invitations and school photos as well as to send visual and verbal messages using a small glowing touch screen/scanner.
Because Philips is involved in the manufacture of consumer products like TV sets, lighting and home appliances, it has devoted major resources to figuring out how high technology is going to affect everything we do -- from having breakfast in bed to storing books on a bookshelf. Striving to be as consumer-friendly as possible, Philips interviewed 14,000 people in 17 countries to find out their thoughts, hopes and fears about the new digital lifestyle.
Those who shudder at the thought of a house filled with more confusing gizmos, black boxes, oversized speakers, tangled cords and overloaded plugs should take heart. "There's nothing to be afraid of. There is no big brother," says Elissa Moses, a Philips senior vice president. "Technology is led by humans, it doesn't drive humans. The most sophisticated technology is seamless. So technology doesn't have to drive the style of how we live or how we decorate."
Philips and other major corporations are working on ways to integrate information, communication and entertainment in the home environment. Some of their ideas: a clear glass toaster that automatically switches off when sensing burning, and an allergen sensor that detects specific ingredients in foods. Smart TVs that know your viewing habits could scan the weekly TV schedule for shows that might interest you and then record them. An interactive screen that can be voice-activated could find a caramel tart recipe on the Internet and order the groceries from the local market.
"Our job is not just to create products," says Moses, "but to work with them and make them fit comfortably into our homes."
When is the future? According to Moses, some of these products might go on sale in a year or two, others later in the next century. "You'll see a lot of them sooner than you think. It's always amazing to me that a product idea can be very far-fetched until it lands in the public arena and people get used to it very quickly. The future is extremely close from the standpoint of people having control over their environment and being able to do a myriad of tasks simply."
Moses says the home of the future will go with any decor. "This is not going to be some Jetsonian fantasy that would be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Your antiques will still be very welcome."
CAPTION: Emotion containers would display messages and emit scent.
CAPTION: Among concepts being displayed for the house of the future is a glass toaster.
CAPTION: Bedside table would serve as the heart of the home, monitoring lighting and temperature.
CAPTION: Face Time: What future would be complete without a picture phone?
CAPTION: Favorite recipes would be seen on an interactive screen with the aid of info chips.