Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable television company, is in talks to launch a unique pilot project in conjunction with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Microsoft Corp. to design a "smart home." The home automation industry is expected to triple in size, from $1.7 billion this year to more than $5.1 billion by the year 2000.
November 28, 1995
Moved in at last. Finally, we live in the smartest house in the neighborhood. Everything's networked. The cable TV is connected to our phone, which is connected to my personal computer, which is connected to the power lines, all the appliances and the security system. Everything runs off a universal remote with the friendliest interface I've ever used.
Programming is a snap. I'm, like, totally wired.
Hot stuff! Programmed my VCR from the office, turned up the thermostat and switched on the lights with the car phone, remotely tweaked the oven a few degrees for my pizza. Everything nice and cozy when I arrived.
Maybe I should get the universal remote surgically attached.
Yesterday, the kitchen crashed. Freak event. As I opened the refrigerator door, the light bulb blew. Immediately, everything else electrical shut down - lights, microwave, coffee maker - everything.
Carefully unplugged and replugged all the appliances. Nothing. Called the cable company (but not from the kitchen phone). They refer me to the utility. The utility insists the problem was in the software. So the software company runs some remote telediagnostics via my house processor.
Their expert system claims it has to be the utility's fault. I don't care, I just want my kitchen back. More phone calls; more remote diagnostics.
Turns out the problem was "unanticipated failure mode" - the network had never seen a refrigerator bulb failure while the door was open. So the fuzzy logic interpreted the burnout as a power surge and shut down the entire kitchen. But because sensor memory confirmed that there hadn't actually been a power surge, the kitchen's logic sequence was confused so it couldn't do a standard restart.
The utility guy swears this was the first time this has ever happened. Rebooting the kitchen took over an hour.
The police are not happy. Our house keeps calling them for help. We discover that whenever we play the TV or stereo above 25 decibels, it creates patterns of micro-vibrations that get amplified when they hit the window. When these vibrations mix with a gust of wind, the security sensors are actuated, and the police computer concludes that someone is trying to break in. Go figure.
Another glitch: Whenever the basement is in self-diagnostic mode, the universal remote won't let me change the channels on my TV. That means I actually have to get up off the couch and change the channels by hand. The software and the utility people say this flaw will be fixed in the next upgrade - SmartHouse 2.1. But it's not ready yet.
This is a nightmare. There's a virus in the house. My personal computer caught it while browsing on the public access network. I come home and the living room is a sauna, the bedroom windows are covered with ice, the refrigerator has defrosted, the washing machine has flooded the basement, the garage door is cycling up and down, and the TV is stuck on the home shopping channel. Throughout the house, lights flicker like stroboscopes until they explode from the strain. Broken glass is everywhere. Of course, the security sensors detect nothing.
I look at a message slowly throbbing on my personal computer screen:
"Welcome to HomeWrecker!!! Now the Fun Begins ... (Be it ever so humble, there's no virus like HomeWrecker ... )" I get out of the house. Fast.
They think they've digitally disinfected the house, but the place is a shambles. Pipes have burst and we're not completely sure we've got the part of the virus that attacks toilets. Nevertheless, the Exorcists (as the anti-virus SWAT members like to call themselves) are confident the worst is over.
"HomeWrecker is pretty bad," one tells me, "but consider yourself lucky you didn't get PolterGeist. That one is really evil."
Apparently, our house isn't insured for viruses. "Fires and mudslides, yes," says the claims adjuster. "Viruses, no."
My agreement with the SmartHouse people explicitly states that all claims and warranties are null and void if any appliance or computer in my house networks in any way, shape or form with a noncertified on-line service. Everybody's very, very sorry, but they can't be expected to anticipate every virus that might be created.
We call our lawyer. He laughs. He's excited.
I get a call from a SmartHouse sales rep. As a special holiday offer, we get the free opportunity to become a beta site for the company's new SmartHouse 2.1 upgrade. He says I'll be able to meet the programmers personally. "Sure," I tell him.
Michael Schrage is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Copyright 1993 The Washington Post
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