On the second floor of Building 33 on the main Microsoft campus is a really nice 3,300 square-foot house that no one lives in. No joke. I’ve walked through it myself. The place is stocked with expensive furniture, all the latest kitchen appliances, automatic lighting and climate control, and an unbelievably advanced entertainment system. Thirty seconds into the tour and you’re already used to the new-house smell. Another minute and you’re ready to back up the U-Haul and move in.
As near as I can tell, the house doesn’t even have an official name, but most people call it the House of the Future because it’s designed to demonstrate prospective home technologies as conceived by Microsoft’s best forward-thinking minds. The name sounds a little like Disneyland, I know, but there’s probably no changing it now. It’s kind of caught on.
Before you even walk into the place, you know something’s up because the normal-looking front door doesn’t have a key lock. (Well, it’s not really a normal-looking door, it’s an incredibly large and expensive-looking door that probably weighs as much as my Windstar. But it sort of looks normal, like it could really be a rich person’s door. Only it isn’t. But it could be.) The tour guide then coyly asks the group how we’re going to get through a locked door without a key, all the while giving us that Alex Trebek-like “I know something you don’t know because I have the answer card right in front of me” look. Without waiting for an answer, she turns and faces a camera that’s hidden behind the side window. The camera scans the iris of her eye, takes a few seconds to identify her, and then clanks the door lock open.
The iris scan, she tells us, is the most secure identification method available because your iris is ten times more unique than your fingerprint. Or is it a hundred times? No matter, at least I know what to say if a futuristic salesman ever comes around trying to sell me one of those lame fingerprint-activated security locks. “Tell it to someone who cares,” I’ll say. “When you start selling iris scanners, we’ll talk.”
The first stop was the living room, where the television detected the motion of the crowd, immediately sprang to life, and presented a menu of shows specifically suited to the tour guide. I’m guessing there was a connection between the iris-scanner and the TV set, but the guide never mentioned it. She was too busy selecting an old episode of “Three’s Company.” Man, did I hate that show. And I can report that it’s just as bad on an expensive HDTV system as it ever was on my old Sylvania.
We worked our way through the kitchen and bedrooms, which, while they held plenty of technological wonders, were impressive enough just because they were clean. Sure, there were computers everywhere, ready to assist with recipes, time-keeping, weather reports, to-do lists. They all recognized the tour guide’s voice, and talked to her like they were old buds or something. She could’ve had all of her voice and email messages read to her from any room in the house. This was convenient, to be sure, but the place was so spotless that I half-expected to see Rosie, the Jetson’s maid robot, rolling around with her broom and dustpan. Now, that would’ve been something. (The Jetsons. Man, I’m getting old.)
The tour climaxes at the Entertainment Room, which they deliberately show you last because it’s the most impressive and contains the stuff they want you thinking about as you leave. You can choose your music, your mood lighting, adjust the blinds, and even start the mirrored ball twirling – all through voice activation. And, of course, the TV menu made another appearance, only this time on an enormous plasma screen. (Still with the “Three’s Company.” What is it with this tour guide?) I could spend hours in this room without ever wanting to leave – days, if there’s some kind of postseason tournament happening.
As with any innovation, the House of the Future has some quirks to work out. For instance, I imagine that the iris scanner is terrific until you have to go to the bathroom really bad. Then it’s a curse. And what if it doesn’t recognize you right away because your eyes are watering so bad? I don’t even want to think about it.
But the tour guide is quick to point out that the house is a think tank project that contains dozens of prototypes, many of which will probably never come to market. I wish I could say the same for “Three’s Company.”
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