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Prepare today for homes of the future
By Bill Gates
FOOT of my bed is a low wooden cabinet that conceals a
flat, 40-inch screen. Touch a button and the screen rises
out of the cabinet so that my wife and I can watch a
movie or the news or browse through family photos. Touch
another button and the screen retracts unobtrusively.
At least, that is what's supposed to happen.
But one night, not long after I'd moved into my
computerized house, the screen wouldn't retract when it
was time to go to sleep. It wouldn't turn off, either. It
glowed brightly in the dark, right above my feet.
I could have bothered somebody to come and
fix it but I did the simple thing instead. I threw a
blanket over the big monitor, covered my eyes with a
mask, and went to sleep.
The next morning somebody solved the problem.
The retracting monitor works fine now. I don't think
about it much anymore. I just use it.
The era of home automation is about to
arrive, starting with "data connectivity" - the
sharing of information among tools of various kinds.
Home-automation technology is coming of age and the
public is receptive.
Homebuilders in some communities are finding
strong demand for houses and apartments that have
built-in computer networks or facilities for connecting
to the Internet.
Our homes are already filled with technology
that we use without a second thought. The toaster, the
light switch and the remote-controlled television are
commonplace. So are the microwave oven and the
Home technology that contributes to an
enjoyable lifestyle is warmly welcomed, though not always
at first. In the past, new technologies have sometimes
taken a surprisingly long time to be incorporated into
homes. Architecture and lifestyles had to adapt.
The toilet is an example. The "water
closet" was invented in 1596 by an English poet, and
refined and patented in 1778 by an English engineer. But
it wasn't until about 100 years ago that the flush toilet
came into wide use in Europe and North America.
The devices were installed in broom closets,
and then in small rooms - bathrooms. Recently there has
been a trend toward large bathrooms, in recognition that
people spend a fair amount of time in them.
Television followed a similar pattern. Almost
50 years ago, TVs began appearing in living rooms and
eventually bedrooms. Now many homes have more televisions
than they do people. One new trend in larger homes is
toward "media rooms" specifically built for
television and movie viewing.
A future trend may be toward homes that have
substantial offices, possibly apart from the rest of the
living area. With more people telecommuting or working
for themselves, it makes sense that homes will reflect
the need for ample workspaces and amenities.
The pace at which innovations are being
incorporated into our homes and lives is increasing. In
the reasonably near future, PC-based networks will enable
us to control many aspects of our homes with devices that
cost no more than $100 each.
We'll be able to control our entertainment
systems in simple but elegant ways, use any TV in the
house to monitor inexpensive outdoor surveillance cameras
and connect to the Internet from multiple locations. Some
of these tasks won't require a PC, but in the end it will
make sense to have a computer to quietly orchestrate the
operations of the systems in a house.
Many "futuristic" devices are
available already. I know somebody building a house who
has a video camera hooked to the Internet so that he can
look in on the job site from any Web browser anywhere. He
can go back and review what happened over the course of a
day, or verify that a subcontractor was on the job as
many days as he said he was. The contractors know about
the camera, so there isn't a privacy issue.
Some daycare centers apparently offer similar
cameras hooked to the Internet, so that working parents
can look in on their small children. Of course, these
cameras are password-protected.
To be easy to install and use, much
home-automation technology will be wireless or send
signals on existing wires, including in-home electrical,
telephone and coaxial cable. Control and other data
signals can travel over existing wiring without
interfering with the existing services, such as
telephones, cable TV and electricity.
If you're building or remodeling a house, you
have the luxury of installing special wiring or even
designing floor plans to reflect your vision of the
One person I know is designing a house that
will have small areas set aside so that family members
can someday communicate via video without showing too
much of their surroundings. Just as people today go into
a quiet room to talk on the phone, he believes that
tomorrow people using a video camera may want to retreat
to spaces that don't reveal too much. "Why show the
world your dirty dishes?" he asks.
He may be looking a little too far down the
road. It's hard to anticipate when video-conferencing
will arrive or how it will affect architecture, if at
The important thing when remodeling or
building a house is to provide for future flexibility by
including inexpensive wiring while the walls are open.
The easiest and probably most cost-effective
approach is to run "structured wiring" to every
room. Structured wiring bundles together a variety of
conductors, including telephone and fiber-optic lines,
into a single cable that's about an inch in diameter and
costs as little as $1 a foot in the United States.
Run a line of this cable from a central
"wiring closet" (such as an enclosed space
under a stairway) to each room of the house where you can
imagine someday wanting communications, entertainment or
Ideally, each room should have its own cable
leading back to the wiring closet, rather than being one
stop on a cable from room to room. Inside the wiring
closet, the wires should terminate neatly in a cabinet.
For now, terminate the other ends of the
cables behind a blank wall plate in each room. If you're
not sure where in a room you'll want the cables, you can
run a single cable to more than one location in the room
and decide later which location you'll activate.
"Structured wiring" prepares you
for the future, even if you can't see it clearly.
It's hard to tell which technologies will
catch on and improve lifestyles. The retractable bedside
TV-computer screen may be a big winner. Or maybe not. ##
article may not be reprinted without the express
permission of The New York Times Syndication Sales Corp.,
122 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10168.
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