2027: The home of the future
From the pages of BJ's Wholesale Club's BJ's Journal

By Joe O'Shea

After a long day of meetings and extinguishing fires at the office, Joe Everyman takes a left-hand turn into his driveway, powers down the car, and ambles to the front door. Although he knows his wife and children won't be home for another hour, he proclaims, "Honey, I'm home," as the door glides open.

Joe is greeted by the soothing image of - who else? - his wife, Jane, who dutifully asks him how his day went, then proceeds to rattle off about five messages she took for him while he was gone.

After all these years, her silky voice - even this artificial version - still makes him weak in the knees. "Had a bear of a day, sweetie," Joe mumbles, before brightening. "But I can't wait to see you and the kids."

How can this be?
The year is 2027, and the computer - or artificial intelligence (AI) - that runs Joe Everyman's home manifests itself in the voice and face of an avatar. A word of Sanskrit derivation, an avatar will be, for our purposes, the virtual representation of the person of your choice.

Married folks like Joe would be wise to choose their mates as their home avatars. Singles will be able to select a loved one, a friend, Harrison Ford or Sarah Michelle Gellar. Selling celebrity avatars could be a booming business.

"We'll have screens or wall displays in most rooms, and these will be able to display the home's front-end personality," says Ian D. Pearson, the resident futurist at British Telecommunications in Ipswich, England. "These avatars will sound and look quite like human beings. These talking heads will have personalities behind them, and people will develop an emotional attachment to them."

In Joe's case today, his wife's avatar sensed his presence thanks to detection devices in the driveway and on the house. The driveway sensor recognized the car, but Joe couldn't gain access to his home until a hand scan at the front door confirmed his identity.

Once Jane's avatar recognized Joe, it flipped on the hallway and kitchen lights, played a little Duke Ellington, displayed a romantic image of New Orleans' French Quarter on the kitchen display screen, and began to warm water for Joe's pre-dinner tea.

The avatar will be more than just an electronic welcome mat, though. It will monitor and regulate room temperatures, heating and cooling individual rooms depending on the time of day, the weather, and whether or not people are present.

By 2027, handprint or eye scans will allow access to home and car, and will enable an avatar to customize music, news, television programming, and even artistic images as people enter and leave rooms. Avatars will monitor residents' health, and route videophone calls to all rooms.

The networked home of the future will provide ubiquitous access to the Internet, or its successor, maybe called the "Grid." All computer information will be stored remotely - and, hopefully, securely - in a bank of Grid servers, eliminating the clutter of boxy desktop and laptop computers.

Some people will choose to build a high-octane wired home from scratch. Others might rip out walls to wire a house. Most homeowners, though, will opt for the less invasive, cheaper alternative that radio-controlled communication provides. Most of these gadgets will be stored out of sight, in a box under the cellar stairs, or in the attic. "You can liberate your living room to people and plants again," says Pearson. "Technology will, in effect, become invisible."

A glimpse at the living room of 2027

* People will wear Grid goggles, which display television or Grid images. These goggles will allow parents to watch a sitcom while the kids do online homework. If the family wants to watch the same program, it can do so on the living room wall screen; otherwise, the wall screen can display a Rembrandt or a lifelike image of a Bermuda beach.

* Chairs and couches will heat or cool on demand, and contour to the shape of each person's body.

* Television will offer hundreds of channels of customized programming, from traditional network fare to highly specialized offerings and virtual reality programs.

* Walls, floors and fabrics will be self-cleaning. Improved HVAC systems will minimize dust accumulation.

Invisible or not, technology will follow us everywhere in 2027. When someone leaves the house, an avatar will morph into a personal digital assistant. Jane Everywoman can wear an earpiece, carry a handheld computer, or wear a Dick Tracy-like watch, all which will provide her with a constant connection to her avatar.

The avatar's familiar voice will remind Jane that she has time to squeeze in a coffee before hitting the electronic highway, which magnetically controls the flow of traffic and prevents accidents (relegating road rage to the breakdown lane). The avatar will also remind Jane of her work schedule for that day, and that she has to pick the boys up after baseball practice at the high school. "This device will be something akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," says Pearson, " and will organize everything for you."

What will homes look like, and how will they be powered?
On the surface, houses won't change that drastically for the foreseeable future. People, by nature, are resistant to change, especially when it comes to the home, which affords its residents with a sense of permanence and place.

What's cooking in the kitchen of 2027

* We will still have to cook.

* Appliances and cabinets will be connected to the Grid, and will be able to order groceries and make dietary suggestions.

* When home avatars sense children alone in the kitchen, they will lock drawers and cabinets with sharp utensils and dangerous substances, turn off a hot stove, etc.

* The kitchen and living room will continue as hubs of family activity.

While most houses in 2027 will look the same as now - capes, Victorians, colonials and ranches - they will be constructed of very different materials. According to Michele Bowman, a professional futurist at Waltham, Mass.-based Global Foresight Associates, building materials in the not-too-distant future will be polymers.

"Polymers will be composed of different materials," says Bowman. "The whole idea will be to create materials that are as strong as steel, as flexible as plastic, and self-extinguishable."

Some of these polymers and other devices might conserve and even produce energy. Geothermal gadgets will transfer heat from the earth to the home in winter, and from the home to the earth in the summer. Genetically engineered grass, flowers and shrubs will lessen water usage and eliminate pesticides. Imagine covering a home with solar shingles or solar paint, which will convert the sun's rays into energy.

A good bathroom read in 2027

* Instead of residents reading in the bathroom, the bathroom will "read" visitors. Future bathrooms will monitor all waste and vital signs for health problems, and will send dietary suggestions to the refrigerator.

* Bathroom mirrors will make exercise and makeup suggestions.

* All waste will be recycled.

Given that California has recently introduced the term "rolling blackout" into the popular lexicon, captains of industry and politicians alike are currently scrambling to develop these alternative sources of power. As information technology matures and power needs surge, people must find ways to depend less on regional and national power grids.

"What's really interesting is that the energy system is slowly splitting up," says William E. Halal, a professor of management at George Washington University and founder of the George Washington University Forecast of Emerging Technologies, a virtual think tank for tracking technology progress.

"Instead of big central power plants, power is being decentralized. Some people might have a hydrogen fuel cell, while others might put up a windmill or a solar panel. Different people in different locations will generate their own power in different ways."

Where, and how, will we live?
Ironically, connectivity to the Grid will set us free. Now, many of us are tethered to the Internet by cables, which, in turn, handcuff us to our machines. But the nascent wireless industry of today will enable the citizens of 2027 to connect to their avatars and Grid databases from almost anywhere.

If managers learn to trust their employees by 2027, no longer will people have to commute to an office every day. Those who choose to do so can work from home most of the time, leading to closer family units.

"People will spend more money on their homes because that's where they'll be living, working and learning," says Bowman. "With videoconferencing, working from home will be easier."

As the years pass, the current model of employment will change in attitude as well as location. Instead of committing to one employer, many people will opt to work on a contract basis.

"Institutions will change greatly because the idea of working nine to five for one organization will be an anachronism," says Halal. "The home will rediscover its role as a center of production."

Snoozing, 2027 style

* Soothing sounds and wall screen pictures in our bedrooms -- water crashing on the shore, birds chirping in the forest, etc. -- will wake us each morning.

* Beds will not only heat and cool, but will also monitor health functions at night. If we choose, bed technology may even help us remember dreams.

* Closets will store "smart clothes," which will adjust to the temperature, keeping us warm, cool or dry as the situation dictates.

More important, this newfound freedom will let people live wherever they want. People can choose a home based on location or on communities of interest, which will lead to a more evenly distributed population.

If Colin MacDougall wants to live in Southwest Margaree, Nova Scotia, where eating meat pies playing the bagpipes are ways of life, he can do so. If Mary Lou Hatfield wants to live in the wild mountains of West Virginia, she can.

"In a wired world, you can live in a desert, on an island or on a mountaintop," notes Halal. ""While I think we're going to see a migration away from big urban centers, cities will continue to thrive by serving a cultural purpose."

But no matter where people live, whether on the Nebraska plains or in the heart of Manhattan, Halal believes that the "family is not going to disappear. The family is the basic unit of social life, and the idea of family is universal and eternal."

Copyright 1990-present Joe O'Shea, Jr.
O'Shea Communications