Microsoft Home pushes boundaries of the future
From digital wall images to the Media Center to sounds, prototypes suggest possibilities
By TODD BISHOP
The mobile phone is already good for mundane things such as making calls and sending messages. But Microsoft Corp.'s latest vision of the future elevates the device to the status of magic wand.
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See video clips of technology inside the Microsoft Home on Todd's blog.
A new version of the futuristic Microsoft Home lets people use mobile phones to control room lighting, temperature, music, television and other parts of the house -- all the way down to the lock on the front door.
"It becomes kind of the ultimate universal remote control," said Jonathan Cluts, director of consumer prototyping and strategy for the Redmond company.
That's one of the central concepts inside the revamped Microsoft Home, a series of rooms filled with working prototypes and technology concepts that the company considers five to 10 years from hitting the market. Microsoft established the facility 12 years ago, and it's unveiling the latest remodel today.
Cluts in room
Zoom Dan DeLong / P-I
Jonathan Cluts, Microsoft's director of consumer prototyping and strategy, uses a ultramobile PC on Wednesday to create and control a collage of digital images projected on the walls of a child's bedroom in the Microsoft Home on the Redmond campus.
The Microsoft Home isn't open to the public, but is available for the company's employees, customers and others to tour by appointment. The goal of the facility is to give those visitors a tangible sense for where the company believes consumer technology is headed.
Of course, predicting the future is an inexact science. For example, your local home-improvement store probably doesn't yet stock the entryway eyeball scanner featured in one earlier version of the home.
The current version is notable in part for its lack of desktop computers -- the machines on which the company originally built its business. Instead, there's a touch-sensitive Tablet PC in the play area, a big-screen Media Center PC in the living room, and a backlit control panel in the entryway wall.
Zoom Dan DeLong / P-I
A new technology in the Microsoft Home allows people to use mobile phones to control things such as room temperature.
Nearby, in the teenager's room, a projection system simulates digital wallpaper that displays a multiwall collage of images that can be posted using a hand-held computer. When Grandma visits, the walls can be changed quickly to reflect her color choices and photos.
In another adaptation, the walls display icons for different online services that can be browsed and accessed by twisting a motion-sensitive orb.
A play area includes a computer that senses, through RFID tags, when a toy is returned to the proper bin -- awarding points when a child cleans up the room.
The dining room, meanwhile, features a projection system that turns the ordinary table into something akin to a large, touch-sensitive computer screen. For a child's birthday party, for example, it displays images of airplanes that zip around the table when they're tapped.
That demonstration is an outgrowth of Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson's work in an area known as surface computing.
It's one of a number of technologies in the facility to come from existing Microsoft Research projects. Another is a technology that intelligently prioritizes messages and alerts to determine whether they should be delivered at any given time. That grew out of the work of Microsoft Research's Adaptive Systems and Interaction group, overseen by researcher Eric Horvitz.
Other prototypes build on existing Microsoft products. For example, the television is a futuristic version of Microsoft's existing Media Center software.
To avoid media overload, the TV can be adjusted to present selected choices, based on the situation and upcoming events. When Grandma visits, it offers her favorite Frank Sinatra album.
"It's easy to imagine 10 years from now, you could virtually have any content created by humankind available to your home," Cluts explained. "If that's true, the absolute worst thing I could do for you is give you a guide with everything in it. It would be virtually useless."
Instead, he said, "the system is making intelligent decisions."