Home Improvements

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From the outside it looks like any ordinary mock Tudor-style family home. But this house, in Watford, a suburb 26 km northwest of London, is more than ready for the age of the Internet.

In addition to standard features like double-glazed windows, the house is equipped with everything you need to download audio, video and data and remotely control all the gadgets in your house: 72 data ports, 72 cables, one networking router, four 64-kilobit-per-sec. digital network lines providing eight digital communication channels, two standard phone lines, five Internet-enabled digital cordless phone handsets, four personal computers, including one that acts as a server and another equipped for videoconferencing, an Internet access service that offers speeds of 384 kilobits per sec., and four webcams. All for a modest $800,000.

The Watford abode is not a showcase for the future. All the technology is available today and the five-bedroom home is up for sale, targeted at families with three children. Built through a collaboration between U.K. construction concern Laing Homes and U.S. networking company Cisco Systems, it is one of nine residences in the Brandon Gate development that is being equipped with the type of high-speed cabling necessary for "smart" homes. The gizmos are optional.

Though I'm not in the market for an $800,000 home, I decided to spend a day in Watford to check it out. Equipping this home for the cyberera cost about $13,000 for infrastructure and installation fees. Not included in the overall price tag: $32,000 worth of cutting edge extras like flat screen TVs.

But prices for such technology are falling rapidly and Laing Homes vows to install the cabling in all of its new homes and apartments, regardless of price bracket. This high-tech home is part of a trend that Bill Nuti, president of Cisco Europe, Middle East and Africa expects to see across the Continent.

While in the living room I used one of two wireless smart devices called webpads to remotely instruct the coffee maker to brew some java. I zapped recipe cards with an infrared scanner embedded in the top of the phone to electronically track what was in the larder. I ordered pizza over the Internet (and it arrived hot!) via a wireless keyboard that also controls browsing on the digital TV set. I tested a central system that allows you to preprogram and control heating and other household functions. And, using "whiteboard" software, I handwrote text messages on-screen to a correspondent who watched --and replied.

While everything worked well enough, I couldn't shake the feeling that it is still early days. I videoconferenced with a Cisco employee--my only choice for a conversation partner--because none of my friends or family have equivalent technology. I couldn't order groceries online because the local supermarkets need more than a few hours' lead-time for delivery. And even if I had been able to order, only one local supermarket--Somerfield--uses the recipe card scanner technology to help the home network determine what is needed.

Still, I can see the potential. It would be useful to be able to remotely turn off the iron, for example, and end those nagging fears. It would be helpful to instruct the house to notify me if the temperature exceeds a certain level or if there is a change in the water pressure. It would be nice to use a webcam to keep an eye on a sleeping baby. If the pundits are right, all this and more will be coming soon to a home near you--or perhaps your own.