Eco house of the future is no hippie commune

"Green" house equipped with microbubble spa tub? Panasonic trades hippie flair for upper-middle-class ambience. Photos: Home of the future

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
TOKYO--Can consumers cut back on greenhouse gases and still own a really cool home?

Matsushita Electric thinks so. The Eco & UD House at Panasonic's technology showcase in Tokyo is a prototype of a home the company said could start being built by 2010. Using the appliances displayed there, a typical family of four could reduce its carbon dioxide emissions, and knock heating bills down some 60 percent, according to the company. (Panasonic is Matsushita's lead brand in most markets.)

Eco & UD House

But, unlike many other "green" house experiments, the Panasonic prototype doesn't exude a commune ambience (generating heat from yeast fermentation is not part of the plan). Instead, it feels sort of like a townhouse that most people couldn't afford.

The Genkiyoku bathtub, for instance, is an upscale spa-tub that emits thousands of microbubbles (with a 30 percent oxygen content) for relaxation. The tub, however, also contains layers of a highly efficient type of insulation that can keep the bathtub warm for six hours.

"I would be a total prune," one observer said of the product. "You could read a whole book."

A heating system converts natural gas to hydrogen. Electrons stripped from the hydrogen go to heat the home. Meanwhile, the heat generated by the chemical reactions needed to produce the electrons heat the water used in the home.

Around the corner in the kitchen and laundry rooms, motorized dish racks rise out of countertops while clothes racks descend from the ceiling. Both devices actually consume more electricity than plain, unmotorized dish racks found at IKEA. Economizing space, however, arguably gives the home the sensation of more space and marginally cuts down on its overall footprint, which can have an environmental benefit.

And let's not forget the EMIT Suimin sleep system, which dims lights, lowers the upward tilt on the bed and plays soothing images on a plasma TV to induce slumber. Or the soundproofed home theater next to the kid's bedroom.

Clamoring for fancy appliances
Anyone who has plunked down a couple of thousand for a Viking range or a subzero fridge while wondering "Why am I doing this?" knows that fancy appliances have become a massive business. Refrigerators and other appliances have been one of the bright spots in the global branding and sales strategy of South Korea's LG.

Kazuhiro Tsuga, an executive officer at Matsushita who oversees networking, recently indicated that the company may try to enter the U.S. appliance market (the company already sells appliances in other regions of the world). Promoting "green" appliances allows the company to capitalize on a growing market trend and, potentially, create a way for consumers to qualify for rebates and credits.

The eco house also dovetails with the company's strategy to promote the digital home, where consumers would read newspapers, watch movies and monitor security cameras through ubiquitous flat screens. Matsushita remains one of the largest plasma manufacturers in the world. It also builds homes in Japan in its Panahome subsidiary. (Plasma and LCD screens consume electricity, but promoters argue that that's offset by the reduction in transportation fuel used to deliver movies or magazines and printing.)

Slowly, the digital home seems to be gaining traction. Samsung, one of the more aggressive promoters of the concept, builds fully wired luxury condominiums in Seoul, Korea, and works with contractors in the United States. Manufacturers of power-line networking equipment, which creates an easy pathway for trading files inside the house, say sales are climbing.

Some of the devices in the Eco home need work. The Genkiyoku shower uses only half the water of a regular shower, but to use it, you have to sit down. That means some areas could be tough to clean. And it looks like some sort of torture device Amnesty International unearthed during one of its undercover operations.

The security system, which sends up an alarm whenever someone who is not in the database of the computer running the visual- recognition software approaches the front door, could get aggravating after a while.

But a rooftop lawn and a kitchen waste disposal unit that blow- dries garbage (to reduce the volume that goes to landfills and household odors)? It's tough not to reach for your wallet.