It's morning, a decade or so from now. As you brush your teeth, a tap on the bathroom mirror brings up your calendar. The old ritual of sitting down to open a laptop will be unnecessary, because as computers get smaller and screens get more flexible, alternatives will be everywhere. Many flat surfaces in your home could feasibly be interactive, according to Steve Clayton, editor of the Next at Microsoft blog. Windows, walls, even appliances will be "smart," sporting a computer brain and a connection to the Internet. When a question comes to mind — "Is school closed today because of the storm?" — you'll ask it aloud. The house (or, rather, a voice-activated chip hidden in the wall) will answer.
And that's just the beginning. For instance, forget about fumbling around for your keys multiple times per day, or worse, losing them altogether. When you get home, a camera in the door will recognize your face and open the lock. Said door will let your dog in and out, but not the neighbor's cat. It might even keep your teen daughter from bringing in a cute boy after school if you don't want her to. If she shows up, shall we say, accompanied, the house will send you a text message so that you're instantly aware and can take whatever action you deem necessary.
Beyond convenience and monitoring, your casa could anticipate comfort cravings as well. Without any prompting, the shades may open when it's time to get up. Tunes might blast when you need to roust the kids out of bed for school. If the interior temperature inches above comfortable, a roof panel could slide closed to dim the sun's glare and open the windows to encourage airflow, reducing your heating and air bill in the bargain. Come nighttime, automatically dimmed lights and soft music can help everyone relax.
Naysayers, take heed — this isn't too good to be true. In fact, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute have already built a model home, called Lumenhaus, with these functionalities. Solar cells on the roof move to track the sun's motion across the sky, drawing energy to power the home. Insulated panels on the exterior slide open to let in sunlight as a wake-up call and close when the temperature drops at night or when you've programmed a bedtime.
According to Robert Dunay, director of the center for design research at Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies, this is called responsive architecture, meaning the house responds to the weather and your habits, says Dunay. You can override any undesired actions with an app. (Flashback to the hilarious Modern Family episode when Phil spent the day connecting the house to his iPad.)
Next on the wish list: a kitchen that cooks dinner and a machine to whip through mountains of laundry. The researchers behind the current crop of appliances are working on it.
Let's say you stop at the supermarket on the way home. A sale on filet mignon prompts the question of whether you need potatoes to whip up your favorite steak dinner. Right now, this requires a guess (or a call home, if someone is there to pick up). In the future, you'll ask an app on your phone to check the fridge. Once you've settled on a meal plan, the app will alert the kitchen to get ready to cook, preheating the oven and programming in your recipe.
Most of the groundwork for this scenario is already in place. Grocery stores use bar codes to track inventory and ring you up at the register. You can use a smartphone app to scan these bar codes and track what's in your kitchen right now. But the really cool stuff will happen when grocers replace bar codes with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, which emit a radio signal that can be read at short distances. You could simply walk out of the store with your items, and an RFID scanner near the exit would read the tags and charge your credit card for what's in your cart.
Adding an RFID scanner to a fridge would make knowing what's inside easy.
In fact, RFID-enabled refrigerators are already used by medical labs to track the age of biological samples. The tags are still too expensive to stick on every loaf of bread or jar of peanut butter. But the cost is dropping quickly and the change is coming.
Better still, once the fridge and stove are Web connected, they can collaborate on dinner while you catch up with the kids. All you'll have to do is move the ingredients from the fridge to the oven.
Put your assembled frozen fixings into GE's new Profile Advantium, for instance, and it will defrost them via microwave, then roast and grill with a combination of halogen lights and microwave energy, cooking up to eight times faster than a conventional oven. Upgrading that smart oven so it can take directions from a phone app or the fridge is just a matter of connecting everything.
Courtesy of that connectivity, when the fridge light is burnt out and the HVAC needs new filters, they'll connect to the Internet and order parts. They might even download the instructions for manufacturing them to the 3-D printer in the garage. Yes, really. Machines that can print simple toys, like MakerBot's $2,200 Replicator 2, are already here. These machines will only get cheaper and more sophisticated, says Gerardo Menegaz, chief architect for IBM Global Technology Services. Using a 3-D printer to manufacture our own dishes, appliance parts or other custom creations is just a matter of time.
On the laundry frontier, well, washing clothes is apparently still a little too complicated for true automation. However, those same RFID tags that are coming to groceries might also be sewn into garments. As clothes hit the washer, it will scan those tags for instructions and sound a warning if, for example, something red is about to turn all the whites pink or a dry-clean-only item slipped in. Or waterless washing closets could steam clean clothes after you hang them up, says Kurt Jovais, VP of Home Appliances for Samsung.
In our minds, all this potential boils down to three words that have never rung more true: home sweet home.
The Ultimate Home Makeover
Current thinking. Solar panels on the roof, wind turbines in the yard and hydrogen fuel cells in the basement will provide alternatives to old-fashioned electricity and afford more control over the utility bill.
Keyless entry. A camera embedded in the door will let your dog in and out, but not the neighbor's cat.
Pull up a chair. Lounge chairs could also be "smart," sporting a computer brain and constant Internet connection.
24/7 comfort. Shades will stay shut until it's time to wake up, then open to let in light.
Window dressing. Microsoft is developing "magic windows" that become interactive displays with the tap of a finger.
DIY 3-D. Researchers are working on in-home 3-D printers able to layer multiple materials into a single object.
The self-aware fridge. Soon, standing in the supermarket wondering whether you have fresh fruit in your refrigerator will be a thing of the past — an app on your smartphone will simply "ask" the fridge. You may even get a suggested recipe to use up items nearing expiration.
Originally published in the March 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.