Microsoft’s home of the future

The home of the future is even more always-on than a cloud-based data centre.

Last month I had an opportunity to tour through a prototype residence that’s situated within Microsoft Corp.‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) campus in Redmond, Wash. It wasn’t the part of the visit that particularly interested me, though I’m sure it was good for the guy from Canada A.M. and the reporter from Maclean’s. We saw a living room where you could put a souvenir on a piece of furniture and – presto! – digital images of your vacation would show up in a series of panels. The TV in the living room could show not only related music to the audio file playing on the stereo system but creepy updates to a surveillance system set up in elderly relatives’ homes (“Grandma is having a normal day,” was one example offered, indicating her behavior matched pre-set patterns in a repository like Microsoft HealthVault).

As we sat in a family room where children’s books like “Goodnight Moon” came to life with silhouette light shows across the walls and watched how a kitchen counter could tell you what you could make out of whatever’s in the fridge, I realized there was relatively little work/life balance in the home of the future. All the applications and embedded sensory systems were oriented around more convenient access to entertainment, diversion or keeping up with household issues. No mention of furtively checking e-mail while you’re going to the bathroom, say, or taking an after-hours videoconference in between preparing tomorrow’s lunches.

Equally distinct, I realize now, is the way solutions for the home and office are provided to end users by the channel. We have VARs for the corporate enterprise, and retailers for the consumer. This, despite the fact that we know the two areas have been blurring for years, and that user expectations within their company will increasingly be driven by what they are capable of doing in the off hours, on their own equipment. Imagine living in the home of the future but working in the office of antiquity.

Jonathan Cluts, Microsoft’s director of human prototyping and strategy, indicated that much of what he showed me could effectively tie into things like Outlook, but the work-related tasks were glaring by their absence. The home of the future (or Microsoft’s version; I’m sure I’ve seen others by HP and various vendors) has been around since the mid-1990s and is upgraded every few years, Cluts said, because eventually the future comes to pass. “Ten years ago we might have been talking about plasma screens, which would have seemed really far off. Not today,” he said.

It also might have seemed inconceivable that one day a home user would also be granted complete access to the desktop configuration they use at work, or that they would move back and forth between these things at all. What seems difficult to comprehend now – but which the home of the future implies – is a personal life filled with automation and projected content that would tie into corporate systems but in such a way that IT departments would not unduly invade employees’ privacy. Microsoft needs to think more about this, as do the VARs who will need to think more holistically about their customer’s professional and personal needs.

“Rather than try to be predictive, we try to show what’s possible,” Cluts said. “We also try not to focus on the obvious things that everyone would think about.” The home of the future as virtual enterprise of the future – that’s possible, and not always considered. Maybe the next upgrade is already overdue.

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