Future Shock?

Rita Braver is a senior correspondent for CBS News Sunday Morning.

My assignment was to visit the "Home of the Future" for our CBS News Sunday Morning annual "Design Edition," airing May 18. It was a journey that produced both delight and anxiety. As you enter a nondescript building at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, Wash., you are met with enough cutting-edge technology to make any gadgeteer gleeful.

That's the problem. When a visitor rings the bell, the house's hidden computer – aka "Grace" – calls out "someone is at the front door." If you are the person inside the house, the visitor's face pops up on your cell phone. Unfortunately, I can rarely recall where my cell phone is. I can just imagine my 87-year-old mother standing in the snow at my front door as I root through my purse.

(Cartoon Network)
Grace the Computer does have some lovely attributes. If you live in the home, and ask for your schedule, she will gently remind you: "Conference call later with Charles and Sue." But Grace is a demon in the kitchen. In the future, grocery store products may be packaged with little radio frequency identification tags, which means that every time you come in with groceries, Grace will make an inventory. So if you just take out a bag of flour and put it next to your food processor, Grace will conveniently project right onto the kitchen counter, a list of recipes you can make with the flour and other products available in the house. She will even read the recipe out loud to you. No more telling the family, "Oh, I just can't think of anything to make. Let's go out."

The Home of the Future will also have the "Closet of the Future." If you hold a cute top up to a special mirror, you'll get a read-out of when you purchased the top, what the laundering instructions are and, most important, which of your other clothes look good with the top. That will cut down on running out to buy a new pair of pants just because you can't find anything to go with that cute top. Darn!

My favorite feature in the "Home of the Future" is the one that allows you to redecorate any space instantly. Say Grandma will be staying in your 15-year-old's room when she visits. You can command Grace to "put the teen room back to Grandma mode." Suddenly, the special lights that have been projecting a funky design on your child's wall turn everything to a soft yellow. And a video monitor becomes visible on the wall, tuned to a camera that lets Grandma keep an eye on what her pet is doing back home.

The most frightening part of all this technology of course, is who is going to repair it. On the old Jetson cartoon, when Jane's Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle, which is supposed to let her push a few buttons and produce a meal, goes on the fritz, even she can't get it repaired. Will Grace come complete with a personal computer technician, kind of like the way we mortals have our own family doctors? I doubt it. I can't even get a plumber to come over and repair my leaky faucet. Perhaps the "Home of the Future," is best when it's just that – something to dream about.