net.wars: There will come soft sprinklers

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 08 August 2003

This week, IBM flew a load of Asia-Pacific journalists - and a lone "European" one, if I'm European - to Austin to see the company's vision of a "Smart House" -- Ray Bradbury's vision made silicon and radio waves, fifty years on.

Wendy M Grossman

I am huddled in my Polartec* inexplicably and inexorably drawn to the refrigerator, toying with it while the Father of the House, researcher Bob Boden, is showing off how he can control the lighting and microwave oven with a $5 gadget, a Bluetooth gateway, broadband, and a voice recognition server in Florida: "Lights on". The lights come up, unlike the Steve Martin movie LA Story in which the voice command "Dial Mom" gets him the pizza parlour.

I am fighting to look up the day's local music events (Austin! the music capital of the world!) on "Yahoo! For Refrigerators" when Boden shifts to show us the refrigerator's text recognition system. A fictitious family member scribbles a note on the screen's notepad, the house server parses it to pick out the names of the people in it, and sends a text copy via SMS to those people's mobile phones. I drift away while he touches an on-screen button to show the contents without opening the door. The light is on inside. One age-old question answered.

A strange thing has happened while we were all busy making cracks about dot-con busts and trading used airplane seats on eBay: the infrastructure has quietly been developing to support the Web-enabled appliances that sounded so silly a few years ago. What, for example, is the good of an oven you can turn on from a Web page when someone still has to put the food in it and many ingredients will spoil if they're left at room temperature all day waiting to cook? None. That's why someone now sells an oven with refrigeration capabilities. Web-enable that, and you've got an oven you can reschedule from your mobile phone when your meeting runs late.

Over in the living room, the main TV set calls up the "Home page". Click on sprinkler. On the configuration page is a little box to check labelled "Observe municipal water restrictions". No more reading the newspaper or listening to the radio during droughts trying to parse which instructions apply to your house. (That's two companies you're going to put out of business, Boden -`did you think of that?) The car downstairs is "self-healing". It monitors its systems, sends out diagnostic data, and even makes its own servicing appointments with the company that provides 80 percent of US car servicing. When you fuel up, the pump reminds you that you've left the car door open. Do you ever get the feeling that things are talking about you behind your back?

The coming RFID revolution will have tiny electronic tags embedded in more or less everything we buy. The food in your fridge will be data. Boden is happy: the kitchen counter will guide you through a recipe appropriate to what you have on hand. I think companies will shift from selling you the Spam in your fridge to spamming your fridge. I envision this screen-equipped refrigerator as an in-home minibar, a private vending machine stocked with cans that, like the mischievous purses in fairy tales, squeak out to their manufacturers (and perhaps your health insurer) when they're consumed.

I ask Boden how all this is going to stay clean enough to function in the grease and steam-laden environment of an average kitchen. Not IBM's problem, he says comfortably, since IBM's goal is to be the middleware that makes all these devices talk to each other: IBM Inside. IBM doesn't make refrigerators. But there is already a company out there making dishwasher-safe keyboards.

We talk a little about social consequences. Boden imagines that the average home will have 40mbps of incoming bandwidth, and will be able to download a feature film in under a minute. But he also imagines a central DVD server holding perhaps 360 discs and a family fighting over whose choice rules. That happens every day in many families, but the final decision rests on a mass of negotiable variables - who had the worst day, who chose yesterday, who's been waiting longest.

In an automated house, a computer would see all this as a set of rules detailing the pecking order, the kind of thing we all know exists in every family group but that we politely pretend isn't there. And there you have the doctoral dissertation for 2013: "The impact on family relationships of rule-based social hierarchies".

How close are we to Bradbury? No one - yet - is talking about a house that can cook you meals, and IBM didn't have so much as a Roomba to do any automatic cleaning. On the other hand, Bradbury's house didn't talk to anybody but itself. The most surprising thing to me was not that we could have a house that played music anywhere or that was controllable by voice - your average geek installed that sort of thing three years ago - but that we've come such a long way toward a house that could administer its dealings with the outside world.

And the Polartec? Well, Wendy thought about explaining, but decided not to. You need the page for August 8th, by the way ...

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).