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Computers In The Home & Cars: 1982

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.

Living In Xanadu

xanadu-roy-masonArchitect 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 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.”

TomorrowHouse Via Apple

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.”

Are We Ready?

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.”

Synthesizing The Beatles

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.

The Computerized Chariot

ford_electrical-jerome-g-rivardIt 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.

Iford-electronic-dash-board-prototype-1982t 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).

The Limits of Automation

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.


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