by Mary K. Mewborn
We hear a lot about so-called “smart houses” and with the influx of tech money and computer professionalsin our own backyard, one might expect to find all the latest and greatest computerized gadgetry, smartappliances, and state-of-the-art equipment already furnishing area homes and available for viewing.Unfortunately, many of the more high-profile local Information Technology (IT) moguls are still in theprocess of building or designing their dream homes. Despite the recent buzz that Microstrategy PresidentMichael Saylor’s long anticipated mega-mansion may soon become a reality, so far the volatile $4 billionman is still ensconced in a townhouse, as is Microstrategy’s cofounder Sanju Bansal. Raul Fernandez ofProxicom is a bit further along in completing his ideal abode but has not yet added all the finishingtouches. Even AOL’s chief Steve Case lives in a rather nondescript suburban rambler. Still, there aresome smart features in nearly all the homes belonging to IT professionals, and many anticipate addingmore innovative products and cutting-edge accessories. Moreover, they were willing to share their wishlists and their wisdom with Washington Life.
Some of the items on the “wish lists” of local IT professionals are still in the research and designstage. Thus, for example, it is unlikely that a house newly furnished this year will feature an AOL WebTV in every room, even if the house in question belongs to Bob Pittman, Jim Kimsey, or Steve Casehimself. Moreover, in some cases, even those products which are already widely available, such as PlasmaTVs, are still so sufficiently expensive that even IT professionals have been known to balk at theprices. As one local tech mogul put it: “We’re waiting for price deflation,” which makes good sense sinceprices fall almost as quickly as technology advances.
What is common to all “smart houses” are advanced security systems. Computer-savvy couple Calvin and AnneCrossman (she is president of Completed Systems, Inc.) have an updated version of a motion-sensingdevice. Others in the tech world have opted for an integrated telephone electronic security system thatallows them to change their security code and disable or reactivate the alarm from afar.
Still another popular cutting-edge option in home security is Lutron Lighting, available throughIntegrated Media Systems in Vienna. The system, which costs about $2.50 per square foot, gives even themost diligent thieves pause by precisely replicating the pattern of lights one would expect to see whenthe family is in residence. “Based on a PC,” it is a fiberoptic system which “replays your lightingusage,” explains one of the titans of Tyson’s high-tech corridor, who recently had the Lutron Lightingsystem installed. “It knows what lights I’d have on, on any given day, at any given time.”
One high-ranking executive from Teligent has a particularly intricate alarm system, such that any breachof security is immediately recorded by specific location. If the alarm is triggered, it is readilyapparent whether the intrusion came from a certain second-story window or the side door. Moreover, thesystem can be activated for particular areas of the house while still allowing freedom of movementelsewhere. Perhaps most importantly, the system grants the resident the peace of mind to live in what isessentially a glass house, without having to worry that someone might be tempted to break-in to steal thehome’s highly-visible contents. If not for the foolproof alarm system, one might feel the need for heavydrapes and steel doors. Instead, residents can enjoy the airy design of an architectural showplace.
For those with exceptional security needs, it is now possible to have electronic surveillance usingsatellite imaging and tracking. However, the cost could be prohibitive, yet useful for those whoanticipate a breach of security within a certain time period. One might instead wish to employ theservice for the duration of a vacation or just while the Queen is visiting, rather than on a daily basis.(Both of the Clinton’s homes, here and in NY, currently have constant surveillance of this sort.)
Of course, security may have become a bit of an obsession, considering that refrigerators with electroniclocking devices are now a hot item, according to area retailers. But when one “billionaire baby” wasasked if he had such an appliance, being single he admitted, “I’m lucky if I can even find my way to thekitchen.”
Increasingly, new homes are being built with smart baths as well. Medicine cabinets are meant to saveresidents from double dosing on prescriptions or alternately give reminders to take medication. However,as with some of the so-called smart kitchen appliances, so far these items are not yet available forpublic consumption.
If one’s home is one’s castle, it is also increasingly becoming both a pleasure palace and a place ofwork. Indeed, the way technology is heading people may never have to leave the house again. The Internetalready allows us to traverse the planet without even getting out of bed, and technological advances makeworking from home ever more common and convenient. On the other hand, computer gurus still admit: “theoffice is my home.” Witness Leslie Davis, President & Chief Operating Officer of Ronbotics. Ironically,even as she hopes to put interactive virtual-reality units into America’s rec rooms, her own home doesnot represent of the dawning of the new age of computerized conveniences and amenities. However, she hasnoticed that her cohorts in the computer entertainment industry are becoming more “proud of their homes”and increasingly “spending more time in them and living there longer.”
Meanwhile, if Davis has her way, we will all be spending time at home enjoying our very ownmotion-enhanced, virtual-reality amusement parks, with rides and attractions on par with Disneyland orBusch Gardens. Although Neiman-Marcus offers a $80,000 version of a product similar to Davis, her company“has developed a revolutionary method for mass production of motion platforms” and therefore expects toundercut her competitor’s price by more than $30,000, a significant savings to be passed on to consumers.Within the next two years, high-end consumers will be able to experience the thrill of a roller-coasterride, simulated flight, and white-water rafting, all in the privacy of one’s own home. Additionally, DVDs(digital video discs) are expected to help create still more fantastic adventures with the look and feelof the real thing.
If riding rapids in the living room isn’t appealing, how about a home theater? Long the domain of moviemoguls, they are now enticing local area IT moguls and are rumored to be among the planned attractions intheir new and improved homes, especially for sports fans, if not team owners. Ask some of the friends andcohorts of Ted Leonsis, Raul Fernandez, or Dan Snyder and one repeatedly hears that Integrated MediaSystems home theaters with DLP (digital light processor) projectors and surround-sound are popularoptions for home entertainment. A 110-inch screen may still come in handy when, as one senior executivefor Teligent predicts, “in the next five years, what’s available to business in terms of teleconferencingwill become cost-effective for private homes.”
When it comes to onscreen entertainment, the high-resolution HDTVs and flat-screen Plasma TVs are themost popular items currently attracting consumer attention. The new Plasmas TVs, with forty-two-inchscreens and sleek design (only four-inches thick), hang easily on the wall like a piece of art.Nevertheless, Roger Mody eventually intends to put several in his new “smart house” in McLean.
When upgrading one’s audio/video center, what self-respecting techie or music lover wouldn’t want abrand-new Harom Kardon AVR 7000 stereo system, due out next month? Increasingly, fewer in the tech worldare speaking in terms of audio/visual centers and media rooms, but rather wholeheartedly adapting theexpression “smart house” to describe the environment in which they reside. It’s a descriptive bit ofterminology, given how many now have every room set up such that lights, sound, and retractable screensare only a “touch screen” away. More frequently the homes of folks such as Alex Mandl of Teligent, andnumerous AOL, UUNET, and Cisco Systems execs are “wired for the future,” capable of receivinghigh-definition satellite broadcasts and boast fiberoptic networks.
In the most expensive of “smart houses,” audio/visual equipment is completely unobtrusive, screens andmonitors are recessed in walls or drop from the ceiling when commanded, and speakers are built into, orotherwise flush with the walls. Many tech professionals who live in 10,000-20,000 square feet “fullyautomated homes,” such that have temperature, lighting, security systems, and more are “lifestyle driven,“ then “system-configured” to meet occupants’ needs at any given time, for any given room. For some, thismeans feeling like masters of the universe, never having to lift a finger to adjust the heat, dim thelights, or set the alarm. For others, it can begin to feel as if they “live like a robot” in anartificial environment, which prejudges and predetermines their movements and activities as if they wereautomatons rather than wealthy creatures of habit. Currently, three AOL executives are installing “homecontrol systems,” of which the Tronarch system is the most expensive.
Crossman didn’t wait long to bring high-speed Internet access into her home. She installed DSL (digitalsubscriber lines) and loves the “instantaneous connectivity.” Wildly popular now, the technology didn’teven exist five years ago. Bell Atlantic’s service is not yet area wide, so depending upon where onelives, some IT professionals have had to go through Covad, Rhythms, or Northpoint. Still, not everyone isconvinced of the need to have DSL. One IT professional who lives in Potomac, MD, (where the service issimply unavailable), is happy to report that his home is nevertheless “wired for everything.” He furtherargues that phone’s “switched-system data line” is more cost-effective than DSL and explains that hisentertainment center, including his satellite TV and satellite stereo system, is all wired through thephone lines such that at the touch of a button he can order up movies and music with exceptional clarity.Meanwhile, large decorative boulders in the backyard camouflage the satellite antenna and cables for thehome entertainment system.
Such fun and functional features are commonplace in the exquisite homes offered through Bowa Builders ofMcLean, which now routinely constructs houses with new wiring that interface with different systems andensures that all outlets are multiple-use. Of course, it is important to have one’s TV wired, because itis expected that the Internet will be viewable on our TV screens, although depending on your Internetservice provider (ISP), Internet access may be through cable connections rather than your phone lines.(And now it is possible to buy one’s own “box” for $3,000 to become your own ISP.)
While WEBTV, a Microsoft product, has been available for five years, it is expected that it will be AOL’sversion (run through DSL) which will captivate the consumer audience. Indeed, AOL’s merger withTime-Warner would seem to have made this a certainty. Until AOL actually gets its product out, most ofthe high-tech community seems willing to languish without Internet TV. But once the Internet iseffectively accessible via voice command, the wait will likely end.
John Sidgmore assures us that the use of voice commands to surf the Web is to be expected in thenot-too-distant future. As of yet, even high-tech CEOs & Presidents of Internet access companies aren’tverbally requiring their wide-screen, flat TVs to pull up a given Web site at home. But, as one IT guruputs it, “this is just the tip of the iceberg, and the way we live today won’t be the way we’ll live tenyears from now.”
Not only will people acquire new goods and services for their homes, but many of the items used todaywill become obsolete. The look of some items will change, as others are simply fazed out. Ultimately, thereally smart houses will be those that are safe, functional and convenient, and comfortable, yetcost-effective.