Monday, October 30, 2000

Home, sweet digital home

(Published in Metro Philadelphia, November 2000).


The kids room in Microsoft's Home of the Future.                                                          Photo: Hans Sandberg


Bill Gates already has a hand in most everyone’s home these days – from the operating system that controls our home computers, to the software programs they are running. But Microsoft wants to play a much bigger role in our everyday lives, something that is obvious when visiting the Home of the Future on its corporate campus in Redmond, Washington.


A miniscule camera sits atop the gray computer screen that greets people at the door of this futuristic dream home. This, as with all of the home’s other high-tech gadgets, is connected to a central computer - the home server.

The welcoming screen reads: 

16100
159 N.E. Ave
Welcome to the Microsoft Home
Ring Doorbell Leave Message

Microsofts John Gallagher shows the door to the Home of the Future.
                                                                 Photo: Hans Sandberg


The virtual bell “rings” when the visitor touches the screen, and a digital doorman contacts the home server, which in turn lets the homeowner know that someone is at the door. If the visitor is welcome, the door can be opened by voice command, or from any one of a number of control panels throughout the home. In case no one is home, visitors simply face the camera and leave their regrets as a video message.

When it comes to getting into your own home, a retinal scanner is a handy alternative to keys. The scanner compares the homeowner’s retina to the one in the home security database, and when verified, will open the door automatically.

Once inside, a small screen in the foyer (mounted at eye-level), offers information on the status of the home. About the size of a deck of cards, this control panel displays and plays any messages -- whether e-mail or voicemail -- and regulates the lighting, home security, heating and entertainment systems. But the user doesn’t need to fuss with controls, since the home of the future has learned a thing or two about the people living there, and automatically adjusts all systems to fit their personal profile. For example, the house can “greet” the owner by turning on the downstairs lights, playing soft music, and raising the blinds when they walk in the door after a hard day’s work.

Many of these features have been borrowed from the “ultimate” digital home, i.e. Bill and Melinda Gate’s $75 million dollar lakefront residence in Medina, Washington - not far from Microsoft’s campus. Gates doesn’t talk much about his house -- and requires his guests to sign a non-disclosure agreement -- but in his 1995 book called “The Way Ahead”, Gates shared his dream of a home where guests wear digital identification pins, so that the computer system knows where they are in the house and plays music chosen just for them - or perhaps “displays” their favorite artwork on hanging LCD screens. The latter feature is missing in the demo home, which is easy to understand as each flat wall screen costs between $10,000 and $15,000.

The family room is bound to be the next digital battleground, but not even in Microsoft’s version, does it have a PC. The centerpiece is instead a huge projection television, with a 42-inch screen. It is of course, networked, and doubles as a home entertainment control center. Running a prototype of Microsoft’s upcoming software for digital “set-top” boxes, the TV is connected to the Internet, and can detect and control other entertainment units, like CD or DVD players. While leaning back on the couch, it’s now possible to select a video, surf the Web, read e-mail, or change CDs.

The company is also testing a voice control system, which can be used as an alternative to wall mounted controls and screens. With this system, one need only tell the home server what they want. In addition, video cameras -- which are also used for home security -- can help to recognize different people in the house and interpret their gestures. Once they “know” who’s in the room, they can also personalize the environment for them.

John Gallagher, one of Microsoft’s concept home “tour guides”, shows how a tiny box and microphone can be used to literally run the home using voice commands such as “Open the curtains,” or “Turn off the TV.” The technology is not quite ready for primetime however, as it is hard for the system to figure out whether the person is giving a command or just making conversation. To avoid any unpleasant misunderstandings, each command needs to be prefaced with a name. In the case of the demo home, the system is named “MC,” so to turn off the lights, the instruction would be: ”MC, turn off the lights!”

Next to the family room is Microsoft’s kitchen of the future, where a traditional PC sits on the countertop with its keyboard in a separate drawer under the counter. It is hard to picture what this kitchen workstation would look like after preparing a Thanksgiving meal. There are plenty of appliance-like PC prototypes that are small, easy-to-use and out of the way – much better suited for a kitchen.

On the kitchen counter is a small barcode reader, which records the family’s favorite food and beverage products. Once scanned, the data is sent to the home computer, so that groceries can be easily ordered online and delivered straight to the home- in this case from HomeGrocer.com (now acquired by Webvan.com).

In the kid’s room are computers complete with joysticks, a huge yellow trackball for digital toddlers, and steering wheels for the older kids – as well as an Intel microscope that works with a PC. Sega, Nintendo or PlayStation are nowhere to be found, since Microsoft is holding the slot open for its own new super-game consol there -- the X-box -- which will arrive, in late 2001.

The master bedroom lacks in digital gadgets and Gallagher explains that it will be converted to a teenager’s room, making it “more fun” to demo. At present, a telephone with a monochrome touch screen gives people a chance to check their e-mail just before dozing off, and on the end table sits a digital frame, that grabs family photos from the Internet, and displays them. One clever feature of this smart home is that when the lights go off, so do the picture frames.

Today, cable and DSL-modems are becoming more commonplace and many homes are becoming networked. And since this future vision belongs to Microsoft, we had better watch and listen carefully. Why? Because one thing that Microsoft is extraordinarily good at is getting their foot in the front door and making themselves right at home.

Hans Sandberg


Totally wired


Steven Guggenheimer, director of consumer strategy.
                                                       Photo: Hans Sandberg

Why is Microsoft focusing on the “Home of the Future” today?
Steven Guggenheimer, director of consumer strategy at Microsoft, says that they do it simply because they can.


Today’s home has more and more devices that can communicate. One example is Sony’s PlayStation II, which is a not just a gaming machine, but a powerful computer that can connect to the Internet and home computer networks. Telephones and TV’s will soon have software allowing them to talk to other machines in the house, and the day will come when most electronic devices -- from toasters and refrigerators, to climate control and security systems -- can all be linked with one single home network.

The home is also an important target for the next generation of Windows. Microsoft wants to build a sophisticated network of applications and services with its new “.net” strategy. The first step is Microsoft Passport, a program that keeps personal information such as credit card numbers, and individual Internet preferences safe and ready-to-use while surfing or shopping online. This virtual ID-card can be used together with PC’s, handheld computers, and internet-ready WAP-cell phones.

“The technology makes us schizophrenic. We have different address books and calendars in different devices. When information is splintered we end up having to do more work,” says Guggenheimer, who sees ”Passport” as a solution to this problem.

Microsoft’s Home of the Future is in many ways similar to the home prototype Time-Warner built back in 1994 to demonstrate its “Full Service Network” (FSN). The FSN home turned out to be expensive to build and operate, and it took much longer than expected to bring down the price of the $5,000 set-top box that was the center of the house. This time, thanks to the growth of the Internet, much of the infrastructure is already in place.

Hans Sandberg


TV of the future

Microsoft has invested billions of dollars trying to get a foothold in the TV business - first by buying WebTV, and later through a number of alliances geared towards putting Microsoft’s TV-software on as many digital set-top boxes as possible. Their strategy is, in some respects, similar to that of Sony Corporation, which is also working towards using the television as a control center for various home electronic appliances.

Microsoft’s latest product in this field is called “UltimateTV”. TVs that are equipped with UltimateTV services can receive digital satellite TV, and record one program while another is being watched. Direct broadcasts can also be “paused” for up to a half hour, and then begin again as if nothing happened. (In actuality the viewer is watching a show that was recorded on the TV’s computer hard disk.)

It is, however, far from clear that the company will “take control” of America’s living rooms. American Online recently announced their alternative to WebTV -- AOLTV -- and AT&T is testing interactive TV software from a company called Liberate on its set-top boxes (since Microsoft failed to deliver on time). Liberate was founded by Microsoft’s archenemy, the database giant Oracle.

Hans Sandberg


Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Xbox - The Mystery Box

(Published in Currents magazine 2000).

The Xbox as it looked in the summer of 2000, before its release in 2001.

Video gaming is serious business, not only for the $7 billion in revenues it brought in last year, but because gaming machines are becoming incredibly powerful and versatile. Sony’s new Playstation2 and Microsoft’s upcoming X-box will, in addition to playing games, be able to do most of the things a PC can do, as well playing DVD-movies and MP3-music. This is why Howard Stringer, president of Sony America, has called the PlayStation2 a “Trojan Horse in the home.”

Microsoft’s X-box will have a 600+ MHz Pentium III processor, a fairly big hard drive, and run computer graphics five times faster than the already super fast PlayStation2.
With so much power, and a fast connection to the Internet this machine is not just for playing Banjo Kazooie and Mario Party. “Clearly, it will be the world’s best web browser, and spreadsheet machine,” says Richard Doherty, a Senior Editor at the Long Island-based consulting firm Envisioneering. He ads that it may also be used to run business software rented over the net from Application Services Providers.

In the late 90’s you could hear totally wired pundits ruminate about the imminent death of the TV, but it never happened. Instead, the TV and the PC learned from each other. The PC was the quickest to learn, but it is not (and will probably never be) an ideal platform for gaming or entertainment software.

Today, the PC is the most popular way to surf the Web, but this is bound to change, as our game consoles are hooked-up to home networks, which are linked to cable or DSL modems. And the “brainless” TV will acquire some smarts from the next generation of digital set-top boxes, which are just around the corner. Then there are the hybrids, like Microsoft’s Web TV, which lets you surf and read email on your TV set.

Evidently there is some convergence, but the PC and the TV are fundamentally different: The first is a tool, while the latter is a media for consumption. In front of the PC you work, and when not, you still have to concentrate, and hold on to that mouse. In front of the TV you can sip on your soda, munch on potato chips, and most importantly, do it together with other people. When grabbing the videogame console, you have to put down the soda and grab the game controller, but at least you can lean back while letting the adrenaline loose.

Microsoft’s X-box can be seen as an acknowledgment that the PC is not a good gaming platform. It is too complicated, slow and unreliable. Who needs a Fatal Error in the middle of E.R.? The strength of the game consoles comes from the fact that they were built for playing games. But to keep up with the gowth of the Internet and the huge potential of Web-based gaming, they are forced to go online. And once they are hooked-up, the door is open for a broader interactivity, including electronic shopping, entertainment on demand, and content delivery (games, software and MP3-music) via the Internet.

As for Bill Gates, gaming is an old quest. He’s had his eye on this market for a long time, but few thought his “microserfs” could create cool consumer content, and machines to run them on. The X-box tells us that this is not only a serious, but dangerous player. When it arrives in the stores late next year, it will be much more powerful than PlayStation2. And as it will be built around a stripped-down version of the new Windows 2000 operating system, it will be easy to move Windows games over to the X-box. This is crucial, because it is hot new games that sell the hardware, not the other way around.

Hans Sandberg

Hubble Telescope Images