Tom R Halfhill was the Features Editor of Compute! Magazine in December 1982 and now runs http://www.halfhill.com/
This preface is from an email conversation with Tom Halfhill from April 15, 2002: Wow, that was interesting! I remember writing the article, but I didn’t remember everything I had written. It’s amazingly prescient, although it also confirms something I concluded a long time ago: despite all the hype about the “fast-changing computer industry” and “Internet time,” major changes seem to take 10-20 years in the computer industry, just like they do in other industries. My article’s preview of compact discs came to pass by 1990, but digital cameras, dashboard map displays, and home automation are becoming popular only now, and many things discussed in the article are still unrealized.
I think the final two paragraphs of my article are the most prophetic. The human factor is what regulates the pace of change, not just the progress of technology.
Reproduced April 14, 2002 with Tom’s Permission. To see the original source document go to the C= Gallery tab, Magazine Articles, Compute! Dec 1982
Remember the Jetsons? That Saturday morning cartoon family of the 21 st century, the ones with the high tech house filled with fancy gadgets. They were the alter-egos of the Flintstones. Mr. Jetson commuted to work in his flying car. Mrs. Jetson kept a carefully coiffed wig handy in case someone called her early in the morning on the picture phone. Robots did all the housework.
Well, don’t hold your breath. Flying Fords and home picture phones seem to be around the same corner as prosperity. But equally exciting high-tech products are on the way, thanks to an invention the Jetsons never heard of: microprocessor chips. These tiny computers, etched on specks of silicon, are the heart of today’s home and personal microcomputers. You could stack hundreds of them on a cornflake.
But although home computers are the glamour children of the microchip revolution, chips are turning up in a wide range of consumer electronic products as well: microwave ovens, tape decks, stereo receivers, turntables, video tape recorders, clock radios, cameras. Usually the “intelligence” added to these “smart appliances” comes in the form of relatively simple timers, sensors, or counters. However, research and development planners, engineers, and futurists foresee much greater possibilities.
Architect Roy Mason is building his vision of the future out of plastic foam in Orlando, florida. Dubbed “Xanadu,” it’s a model home for the 1990s and beyond. Xanadu consists of domed pods built by spraying polyurethane foam onto removable molds. The quick-setting polyurethane hardens in a couple of days, forming perfect seals around the doors and windows which are set directly into the foam. The resulting structure is said to be so well insulated that it requires only a quarter of the energy for heating and cooling as a similar-sized conventional house. It also reduces construction time for the basic shell to only three days, and is claimed to be suitable for any type of climate.
But Xanadu’s really revolutionary features will be tucked away inside the foam shell. It is being crammed with every electronic and computerized gadget imaginable. The point is not necessarily to show what will happen to homes in the near future, but what could happen. Xanadu will cost about $300,000, even though much of the equipment is being donated for promotional purposes. When completed late this year, Xanadu will open as a tourist attraction for people visiting nearby Disneyworld and Epcot Center .
Architect Mason believes Xanadu will alter the way we now tend to think of houses -as little more than inanimate, passive shelters against the elements. “No one’s really looked at the house as a total organic system,” says Mason, who is also the architecture editor of The Futurist magazine. “The house can have intelligence and each room can have intelligence.”
Take Xanadu’s kitchen, for example. It’s equipped with a “family dietitian” consisting of four microcomputers. It plans well-balanced meals for family members depending on their height, weight, sex, age, and levels of activity. If you come home from a busy day and inform the computer-dietitian that you skipped lunch and nibbled on a candy bar instead, it calculates supper based on the nutrients you missed. An “auto-chef” can move food from the refrigerator to the microwave oven to the dining table, and the computers keep track of the grocery inventory so you know what to replace. The auto-chef can even regulate the ambience of the dining room to match your meals, adjusting the lighting and background music to complement your Mexican dinner, for instance.
Some of that food is grown by the house itself. Xanadu has a built-in greenhouse. Naturally, a microcomputer monitors the watering of plants, artificial sunlight, ventilation, humidity, soil content, and the shutters and awnings.
The groceries you can’t grow can be bought by tele-shopping at the household work station. The catalog is on a videodisc system hooked into the microcomputer, and the transaction is handled with the help of tele-banking. The work station computer also maintains a household calendar, records, and home bookkeeping.
Xanadu incorporates the latest “electronic cottage” concepts to reduce or eliminate daily commuting to and from work. A study/office shows how business could be conducted from the home, with electronic mail, access to stock and commodities trading, and news services.
Xanadu’s other features include ” Auto Oasis,” a computer-controlled party room; a health spa, where a computer suggests exercises based on your physical characteristics and diet; a family learning center with four talking microcomputers that run educational software and even an interactive psychoanalysis program; illusionary “windows” that display computer-generated images, just in case you get tired of staring at the laundry on the Joneses clothesline; a “Sensorium” with hologram projection and a computer-controlled bio-feedback device which regulates background music and abstract patterns on the walls in tune with your moods; and an electronic art gallery with ever changing, laser-projected images.
With all this advanced electronics, you’re probably wondering at this point about Xanadu’s horrendous electric bills. Mason has an answer for that, too. A central microcomputer monitors all energy consumption and eventually will be programmable as a watchdog. “You could program the house, ‘I’m only going to spend $300 this month for utilities and that’s that.’ So you’d program that on the keyboard and the house would only use $300 worth of utilities. Of course, you might not get your laundry done for a few days, but that’s your decision.”
The central computer is part of the family media room, which also includes video games (of course), two-way cable TV, and a large-screen video projection system. But the central computer is the heart of the house, and comprises what Mason refers to as the “electronic hearth.”
“The home of the future will be more like the home of the past than the home of the present,” says Mason. “It used to be that the whole family gathered around the hearth for entertainment activities, meals, and so on. The home of the future will feature what I call an ‘electronic hearth,’ a home computer that is the center of the family’s activities – entertainment, bookkeeping, meal-planning.”
Although families today gather around TV sets, that form of entertainment is passive, with little or no interaction between the family members and the TV set or with each other. A home computer, on the other hand, allows interactive entertainment. Mason says the difference has yet to be fully appreciated.
“My feeling is that the home computer has never really been a home computer, it’s been a
personal computer. We haven’t really seen home computers being used as home computers, as a house computer. [At Xanadu] we’re using the home computer as a true house computer.”
Surprisingly, most of the microchip devices in the Xanadu house are already available off-the-shelf items. Xanadu simply brings them all together in one place with little regard for expense. To demonstrate that the concepts are practical, Mason is planning a spin-off model of Xanadu, a less elaborate version that is relatively affordable. It, too, will be made of polyurethane foam, but will have less hardware.
“I don’t want people walking through this house [Xanadu] and saying, ‘Well, this is great, but who could afford it?’ I want a version that is affordable,” says Mason.
This version would have about 2,000 square feet- Xanadu has 5,000- and would cost around $80,000, Mason hopes. “We’ll probably have extras like you have when you buy a car -you can make the house as smart as you want. It’s already a pretty smart house.”
All the energy and security alarm monitoring at Xanadu will be handled by a commercially available program called TomorrowHouse, marketed since mid-summer by Compu-Home Systems, Inc. of Denver, Colorado. TomorrowHouse is a dramatic demonstration of the future possibilities for micro-computer-controlled homes. Running on an Apple II, it supervises the central heating and air-conditioning, monitors temperatures outdoors and in every room, and performs dozens of other tasks.
“For example, if you go off skiing for a weekend, which we do all the time here in Colorado, you can program your hot tub to heat up to 102 degrees at 7 o’clock on Sunday night to be ready when you get home,” says designer Russ Coffman, vice president of Compu-Homes.
TomorrowHouse also enables the computer to talk. This adds some interesting features. “If anyone breaks into your house, the security system detects it and the computer turns on all the lights and, starts talking,” explains Coffman. The idea is to frighten the burglar into thinking the house is occupied. To that end, you might imagine that the computer says something like, “Whoever’s out there, watch out for the cobra!” or “Honey, pass me the hand grenades!”, but Coffman kept it simple: “It just says, ‘Intruder alert at 7:03’ or whatever time it is, just enough talking to make the intruder think that somebody is home.”
For the future, Coffman wants to make it possible to monitor and reprogram the house from any touch-tone telephone. When you’re on vacation, you could phone the computer and check if any break-ins have been detected, or if the freezer is still working. As microchip technology advances, other features will be added, too.
“Voice recognition we haven’t started working on yet, but we’re keeping our eyes on it,” he says. “We eventually want to fix it so you can just holler at the computer and get it to do things.”
Actually, some planners believe the biggest hurdle won’t be microchip technology itself, but market resistance from people unaccustomed to delegating tasks to computers.
“Companies are waiting to see what people really want,” says Dick Lane, project manager for Honeywell, Inc. “We could do almost anything in the home right now that you could imagine in the next 20 years, but it’s just a matter of getting people to accept it.”
As long as the housing market remains depressed, Lane explains, microprocessor controls won’t be built into new homes, because builders already are trying to save every penny. Also, people would rather spend extra money elsewhere: “People want to start with a three-car garage, but they’re a lot more cautious about the gee-whiz features There’s a lot of competition right now for the consumer’s discretionary income in the way of electronics products. Right now the pleasure products, such as video tape recorders and video games, are getting the bulk of that income.”
When microchip-controlled homes do become common, Lane also doubts that the systems will be built around home computers, as Tomorrow House is. “Our perception is that people don’t really want to touch a keyboard to change the temperature of their home, or to activate security devices, and so on. We have to find another type of 1/0 device [input/output] before people will be more accepting of it. Voice recognition, of course, would be the ultimate.”
Another problem with controlling houses with home computers is that the machines cannot be used for anything else while they’re occupied. Today’s home computers cannot handle multitasking running more than one program simultaneously and independently. As microchip technology advances, tomorrow’s home computers may have the capability to play video games or balance the checkbook while monitoring the furnace, but Lane predicts the functions will be handled by separate systems. He thinks this would also be more reliable, since consumer computers aren’t necessarily de- signed to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
With the increasingly powerful microchips, becoming available, the computer-controlled functions might be “invisible” to the consumer, since the devices could “program” themselves. “The chip could have some intelligence,” describes Lane. “It could have a learning algorithm in it so it could know what’s normal. If it’s cold outside, the furnace
would learn those conditions, such as how much it should be running. If you left your door open, the furnace would know it was running more than normal and would alert you to that fact. Or if the filter were clogged and the airflow were reduced, the furnace would notice that it was getting less air than usual and would tell you.”
This would be a better approach than programming a single home computer to handle everything, Lane believes. A more important contribution of today’s home computers, he says, might be simply acclimating consumers to the idea of computers in the home. “I certainly think the personal computer has made the most dramatic impact at this time As this set of people gets more familiar with computers and buys more personal computers, maybe we’ll see a desire to involve computing devices in more broad applications.”
If all this talk about computer-controlled homes and intelligent furnaces sounds rather mundane, be assured that microchips will be turning up more often in the fun products as well. Already, micro-chips are becoming common in video cassette recorders, cameras, TV s, and stereo components.
Last year, Sony showed prototypes of its filmless electronic camera. Instead of using film, the camera receives the image on a densely packed array of charge-coupled devices (CCDs), electronic circuits sensitive to light. This image, in turn, is stored on a tiny interchangeable magnetic disk, a lot like the mini-floppies used with home computers. Since the image is stored magnetically, no processing is required. The pictures are viewed on an ordinary TV set with a special disk player. A full-color printer might be available for hard copies. The disk can be duplicated, erased for re-use, or edited. A single cookie-sized disk might hold 50 pictures.
The Sony camera is a couple of years from production, and Sony engineers are working to overcome a few remaining problems. They’ve done a fantastic job of shrinking it to hand-holdable size; even with its built-in disk drive, the prototype is about the size of a 35-mm single lens reflex camera. The CCD arrays are expensive, however, and right now the camera would cost around $800, according to” some estimates. Since the resolution of a TV picture is nowhere close to what professionals and advanced amateurs have come to expect from conventional photography, the Sony camera would have to be aimed at the mass consumer market for which $800 is a steep price, But remember, it was only a few years ago that the least expensive home comp1rters cost that much.
The computerization of sound holds even greater promise. For although it will be some time before video images surpass the quality of photographic images, digital sound is already clearly superior to today’s analog recordings.
Sound is recorded digitally by a computer which “samples” the sound thousands of times per second, and then converts the tones into digital bits of information. The advantage is that the sound can be manipulated like any other digital information. Extraneous noise can be dropped out, weak sounds can be amplified, and overly loud sounds can be tempered. The results are amazingly distortion-free.
Some “digital” record albums are available today, but this means only that the music was recorded digitally in the studio. The sound is reconverted to analog when pressed onto the vinyl record, since the needle-and-groove system is an analog process. Even this hybrid digital-analog method is a noticeable improvement. But the audio industry is on the verge of a technological leap into a pure digital system. A digital audio disc was introduced in Japan this fall by Pioneer Electronics, and may be introduced in the U.S. as early as next year. Music is recorded digitally on the four-inch disc in tiny pits which are read by a laser “stylus” on a special player. This is somewhat similar to the videodiscs already on the market, except that images on videodiscs are still analog reproductions. The digital audio disc will dramatically reduce record wear, and up to an hour’s music can be recorded on a single side.
As with computer-controlled homes, though, the biggest roadblock for digital audio discs is not technology, but marketing considerations, the record industry doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as the electronics industry, still, few people doubt that digital audio discs will supplant analog discs eventually, and researchers are excited by the possibilities of computerized, digital sound systems.
For example, Verle Rader, product planner for Pioneer Electronics, thinks tomorrow’s computerized stereos may allow listeners to modify recorded music far beyond the capabilities of today’s tone controls and graphic equalizers.
“If you don’t like the tempo of the Henry Mancini record you just bought, you could change it. If you want it to be a samba instead of a march, you could change it to a samba. Or you can analyze by computer all the music written by Beethoven.
You could sit down and compose a short melody line, feed that into the computer, and the computer could then generate a Beethoven symphony based on your melody line. Or you could feed all the vocals of all the Beatles’ songs into the computer and let it analyze them. Then you could write your own song, feed that into the computer, and it would come back with your song performed by the synthesized voices of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, just as if they had recorded it originally.”
Of course, these kinds of developments are further in the future. Closer to home, Rader says stereo manufacturers will use microchips to make their products easier to use. Up to now, it seems, manufacturers have been seizing every opportunity to transform their audio components into some” thing out of a space shuttle cockpit. That’s about to change. “We’re encountering a lot of consumer resistance to all these buttons on the front panel,” says Rader. “The reason is that our market is changing somewhat. Up until now, we’ve been selling primarily to the 18 to 34, male, technically oriented, middle-class, affluent buyers. They like to push all the buttons. But we’ve pretty much saturated that market. Now we’re finding mort buyers who are not 18 to 34, male, technically oriented, middle- class, and affluent. They don’t want to push a dozen buttons just to playa tape. So we have to make our products simpler to operate.”
That’s why some top-model stereo cassette decks now sense the type of tape inserted in them and automatically adjust the bias and equalization to fit the tape’s makeup. Another new stereo system allows you to switch from playing a tape to the FM radio by pressing only one button. Look for more such features as microchips become more widely adopted for consumer products.
It seems strange that space-age devices such as microprocessors would be wedded to that huff-and-puff holdover from 19th century technology, the internal combustion engine, but one fact is that auto manufacturers are rapidly becoming the world’s largest customers for microchips.
All the manufacturers are increasingly using microchips for such tasks as regulating fuel flow and ignition systems, computerizing instruments, diagnosing problems; and jazzing u p accessories. The 1983 Thunderbird will use computerized advice synthesis to speak with a three-sentence vocabulary: “Your key is in the ignition,” “Your headlights are on,” and “Door is ajar.”
Again, however, technology is taking aback seat to marketing considerations. Especially when it comes to innovations such as talking dashboards, the auto manufacturers are stepping softly and measuring consumer acceptance at every turn. Remember, even after two decades, most American drivers still refuse to accept seatbelts, and airbags are often regarded as an outrage.
Still, designers foresee tremendous possibilities for intelligent autos. “By 1985-1990, virtually every car in the would will have at least one microprocessor,” predicts Robert F. Haase, technical planning manager for Ford Motor Company’s Electrical/Electronics Division. “Our Continental today already has four or five microprocessors.”
Haase says microchips will make possible the “personalized car”: “You’ll have a way to tell the car just what person is driving the car, so it can ‘personalize’ itself by adjusting the mirrors, the seats, and programming itself for your favorite radio stations,” says Haase. “The car will personalize itself for the driver.”
In a few years, dashboards may incorporate CRTs (cathode-ray tubes) or flat-panel LCD (liquid crystal display) screens for readouts. Tomorrow’s road maps might even be in the form of computer graphics stored on floppy disks and displayed on the screen. “Of course, there you would have the possibility of bringing up maps of increasingly fine, detail,” suggests Haase. “You could have one map, perhaps, showing all of Michigan, another one showing just Detroit, and another showing maybe just one quadrant of Detroit.”
A major advantage of this system would be that you wouldn’t have to worry any more about folding up the map when you are done. But you’d still have to worry about the kids spilling jelly on the disks.
It might even be possible to pre-define your route by moving a cursor over the screen map. Then, like any good backseat driver, the car could alert you to wrong turns: “Hey, dummy, you shoulda hung a left on Elm Street”
“Another thing you might see in the next few years is sonar devices to detect if you’re backing up over your kid’s tricycle or whatever,” says Haase.
“Ten or 15 years down the road, the sky’s the limit. You can envision radar systems, sonar, infrared, heads-up displays.” Heads-up displays are projections of instruments or other information on the inside of windshields, much like the cockpit displays on the latest jet fighters.
The next big leap would be the logical extension of voice synthesis-voice recognition. Instead of pushing buttons, you just tell the car what you want.” If you attach the possibilities of speech recognition to the personalized car, you can envision walking up to your auto and saying, ‘Good morning, car ” and it responds by unlocking its door for you and adjusting its mirrors and seats and turning on your favorite radio station,” explains Haase.
Advanced systems might be able to distinguish between voices so you could program the car to respond only to your own voice arid your spouse’s (or maybe not your spouse’s).
Although some sort of computer-controlled, radar or sonar-triggered collision-warning device seems a likely development, Haase expects stiff consumer resistance to any type of automatic collision-guidance system. People would accept a warning light or buzzer, but would resist a device that slammed on the brakes for them, just as they are wary of airbags. There seems to be a psychological limit what humans are willing to delegate to machines.
We perceive fine line between contrivances which grant us more freedom by relieving us of certain tasks, and those which threaten to rob us of freedom by automating some things we want to control ourselves. Computers are bumping against this boundary more than other machines because they are capable of so much, and because they are the first machines with the power to automate not just muscle movements, but also brain functions.
This psychological boundary is becoming a bit more flexible as automation and computerization become more widely accepted, but in the end it may prove to be a limit more stubborn than the reach of our technology.