In Microsoft home, speak clearly and carry a manual

New demonstration home in Redmond, Wash., showcases technology that Microsoft bets will become commonplace within a few years. Webshots gallery: Bill Gates' house

6 min read
REDMOND, Wash.--Pam Heath had led the way through the Microsoft Home, showing off "smart" kitchen appliances and mirrors that display computer-generated messages, before she said the words "Bill G.'s house."

Bill G.'s house?

"Bill G.," it turns out, is how Microsoft employees refer to the company's co-founder and chairman, Bill Gates. Heath is the lead program manager on the team responsible for the Microsoft Home, a technology-laden demonstration project. And as her 90-minute tour of the Microsoft Home made clear, there are differences between it and Gates' own much-talked-about house a few miles away.

The Microsoft Home is a 3,000-square-foot wing of a conference center on Microsoft's sprawling headquarters campus. It looks out on a parking lot, with a similar low-rise building next door. Gates' house has about 40,000 square feet of interconnected "pavilions" and looks out on Lake Washington, with Seattle on the opposite shore.

Gates' house is said to have cost more than $30 million. Heath said she could not put a dollar figure on what a consumer would have to spend to install the technology in the Microsoft Home. "We never added it up," she said.

So is there any resemblance between the Microsoft Home and Bill G.'s house?

"I tell people there are some things that are the same and some that are different," Heath said. "What's the same is how technology can affect your daily life. Bill G. is interested in that. The difference is, this is a prototype. In Bill G.'s house, an actual family lives there, so there are different needs and requirements."

The Microsoft Home is more like a concept car, a design to dream about. Microsoft has imagined a dream house before: 10 years ago the company unveiled its first such demonstration home. At the time Microsoft's designers were intrigued by interactive television, a technology that never became the next big thing.

Land o' gadgets
None of the devices in the new Microsoft Home may end up in ordinary homes of the future, either. "We're not saying everything will turn out this way, that this is the vision of the future," Heath said.

No, but there is a lot of futuristic talk (and there are a lot of gadgets) in the Microsoft Home. Somewhere between the front door and one of the two widescreen televisions, Heath talked about how "emerging platforms" have not shoved aside "paper-form factors," which are things printed on old-fashioned paper, like books and newspapers.

Or as Heath put it: "This is not like the Jetsons. It's not like `2001.' We're thinking fairly near-term. If you like books, we've still got books. There's reading on tablets"--smallish, flat computer screens that Microsoft says were a big element in the 1994 house--"but we certainly don't see paper-form factors going away."

And then there are the walls in the Microsoft Home. These walls have ears. Actually, what they have is microphones--exactly how many, Heath said she did not know. "The home is listening all the time" and can respond to commands, she said. But it responds only when someone says the magic word. (Heath did not call it a magic word but "the wake-up word," meaning the word that wakes up the system.)

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The wake-up word is "Grace," in acknowledgment, Heath said, of Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper. She was a legendary computer scientist who, during World War II, worked on an early large-scale computer at Harvard, the Mark I (which, at 51 feet, was slightly shorter than the longest wall of the Microsoft Home).

Heath's first command was five words: "Grace, set scene, watch TV." The shades went down, and Heath turned a corner and settled on a sofa in front of one of the widescreen televisions, explaining that the Microsoft Home is meant to showcase technology that Microsoft is betting will become commonplace within a few years. A tour of the house suggests that the biggest bet is on computer networking, the idea that everything from the appliances in the kitchen to the mirrors in the closets will be tied together through a computer network that is itself tied to the Internet.

Networking seems to be a safe bet. Already, the National Association of Home Builders says, this kind of technology is a $3 billion business. The association, a trade group in Washington, says that consumers spend $1,500 to $60,000 on a typical installation, sometimes more: security systems, thermostats, lighting controls, video cameras at the front door or the front gate.

Complicated as some of those installations are, they cannot compare with concept houses like one at Georgia Tech or another, called PlaceLab, which is not a free-standing house but a 1,000-square-foot condominium in an apartment building. PlaceLab, in Cambridge, Mass., is being operated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and TIAX, a research-and-development company. The condo is lined with miles of cable and packed with sensors that track everything from how often the volunteer residents open the windows to the quality of the air that comes in.

Kind of "smart" homes
Many consumers already own the building blocks of the "smart" home: security alarms, programmable dimmers and timed thermostats. But those systems are not tied together the way everything in the Microsoft Home is. So if no one is home, the Microsoft Home invites a visitor to leave a voice-mail message, right at the front door.

Heath said her own comparatively low-tech home had a little notepad and pencil on the front door for such messages. At the Microsoft Home, an electronic message goes to the homeowner's "universal inbox," which can also contain e-mail and telephone messages.

"Our assumption is, in the next 5 to 10 years, you will get these features more or less for free," Heath said, and using them will be simple: "You're not going to have to spend money configuring all these things. If you have to spend time checking or unchecking dialogue boxes, you can't enjoy the technology."

When it comes to locking or unlocking the front door, Grace and her technological sidekicks have replaced old-fashioned keys. The same panel that recorded the visitor's message scanned her hand, and faster than one could say, "Open, sesame," the door unlocked itself.

"Grace, set scene, welcome home," Heath said. The shades rose. Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" began playing on stereo speakers. Heath ran her hand over an interface in the foyer, a computer screen that can display messages.

As flat screens go, this one is unobtrusive: it is built into the wall and can be painted over. When the screen is off, it looks like the rest of the wall. (The image shines through the paint.)

Another of Microsoft's bets is on radio frequency identification tags, which are small, rewritable chips used mostly in product packaging and inventory tracking. Chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy are already experimenting with the technology, and Heath sounded confident about the next five to 10 years: "We think everything you bring into the house will be tagged."

The Microsoft Home can read the tags and keep track of the information they carry. The network knows, for example, what ingredients are available. (If the makings for chocolate chip cookies are not on hand, it will suggest a recipe for oatmeal cookies, assuming those ingredients are on the shelf.)

It can read similar tags in clothes for cleaning instructions. "My daughter might not care about that, but my washer will," Ms. Heath said. The tags can also tell the network whether the skirt a child has pulled out of the closet conforms to a school dress code, or a parental one.

So has Heath been inside Bill G.'s house? In the Microsoft Home, some subjects are off limits, even for someone who has just described her own house, a one-story, two-bedroom bungalow with four computers and two printers.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment one way or the other," she said.

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