In his 1973 movie, "Sleeper," Woody Allen put forth a vision of the home of the future that was blindingly white, minimalist and sterile. If that's going to be the case, then what will become of our collections of Fiestaware and the mantlepiece filled with framed family snapshots?
I have seen the future, and, happily, it's not devoid of homey touches. I recently visited the "House of the Future" created by Popular Science and Sunset magazines. Perched on a hillside in Alamo, Calif., and designed to show what the average home will look like in 2031, it's warm, comfortable and full of convenient touches. It seems as though our homes will retain their unique expressions of our personal style but combine them with technological advances that will save energy and make our lives simpler.
Legendary futurist Paul Saffo believes the future will be much more welcoming than "Sleeper" suggested. "It's fascinating for how long the future was clean and white and bright. … I think it's a reflection of people's hopes. They want the future to be everything that today is not for them, and that tends to be bright and white and clean and orderly," Saffo said.
The first thing I noticed while visiting the house was music playing in all the rooms -- but I couldn't see any speakers or stereo equipment. They're hidden in the walls: Gadgets that looked like fancy thermostats actually control the music. They can pull tracks off various devices -- an iPod, a CD player, or the radio -- and play them in some or all of the rooms of the house.
In the future, this music technology will be seamlessly integrated into the wireless networks that stream through the home. Much of that technology is available today, but the key phrase here is "seamlessly integrated": There won't be any wires to trip over and ideally, no disaster scenarios in which nothing works. My vision of a world without constant troubleshooting may be optimistic, but a girl can dream.
High Style Meets High Tech
The PopSci house has more to offer in the entertainment realm than just music. It has a booming media room with a high-definition projector that spews crisp images onto an 8-foot tall screen. There are LCD and plasma screens everywhere in the home.
For kids -- and the young-at-heart -- there's a gaming area complete with a high-def Xbox and a racecar chair that entices even nongamers to take a spin. An LCD monitor in the kitchen has full Internet access and ties into the home's security camera system. In this house, parents preparing dinner can keep an eye on the kids to make sure they're not fighting over the Xbox.
Big screens dominate our current obsession with home entertainment, but Saffo says the bulky boxes and heavy screens with which we're familiar will dramatically change.
"The thing that'll be missing in 25 years is the TV screen," he said. "Perhaps it'll be a fabric on the wall. Perhaps it'll be something that's painted into place. But big, boxy electronics disappear into the river."
No Curtains, Smart Kitchens
Saffo says curtains will also be missing from future homes. In the Pop-Sci house, the bathroom windows have electricity running through them. At the flick of a switch, they go from transparent to opaque. Though still in its early stages, the technology is impressive.
"It's very expensive, it's here today, it doesn't work great yet, but there's this whole intelligent materials revolution happening, and in 25 years, middle class and wealthy people will actually be able to buy windows that don't need curtains," Saffo said.
Traditional stoves will be phased out as well. In the kitchen, we'll use induction cooking for instant heating. This technology exists today and is being marketed by high-end appliance makers like Thermidoor. It uses electromagnetic forces to immediately heat a metal pan. Induction cooking can get water to boil in 5 seconds with a fraction of the energy we use today.
Your fridge will tell you when it's time to stock up. Radio Frequency ID tags will communicate with home networks to keep a current inventory of everything in the pantry or fridge. This technology can even alert you when the milk has passed its expiration date or when you need to buy more bread.
High-Tech Health at Home
In the home of the future an unlikely device may serve as a direct link between you and your doctor -- the toilet.
Technology will allow you to ID yourself at the toilet by running your fingerprint over a biometric scanner on the handle as you flush. The high-tech john then measures your glucose and cholesterol levels and records that information in your own personal health database, possibly alerting you or a caregiver if the levels are too high or low.
Since so many infections are spread in hospitals, there is a real push to bring personalized and sterile health technology into the home. Saffo thinks the advent of robotic and remote surgery will dramatically influence the use of the home as a health care center.
"We will have some capabilities that will cause people to look back at today and say, 'I can't believe they used to do things like that in the hospital,'" he said.
Less Energy, More Robots
The future home raises lots of questions. For one, how will all of its new gadgets and technologies be powered?
The current thinking is that solar panels and personal windmills will gradually make their way into homes to wean us off our dependence on expensive foreign oil. Appliances are also being engineered to consume much less energy and resources. When it comes to energy, the home of the future aims to be completely self-sufficient.
What about robots? Will they wait on us hand and foot?
My household is on its second Roomba vacuuming robot, and though I'm praying that someone invents a clothes-folding robot soon, I'm not holding my breath.
The technology that goes into robots is incredibly sophisticated, and most important, expensive. Perhaps the über-wealthy of the world will have an army of robots catering to their every need, but then they'd need an army of IT guys to manage the robots.
For the everyday Joe, a few basic robots will infiltrate the home to take on tasks like mowing the lawn or feeding the dog -- but don't expect Rosie the Robot to serve you dinner every night in 2031.