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Tuesday, September 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:31 P.M.
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Microsoft Home smarter at age 10

By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology reporter

BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Microsoft executive Jonathan Cluts shows off the mirror of the future, which knows what's in your closet, what's at the cleaners and what would look good with that shirt.
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Jonathan Cluts doesn't sport a beard or a plaid shirt, but you could call him the Bob Vila of Microsoft.

As director of consumer prototyping and strategy, Cluts is constantly remodeling the Microsoft Home, a showcase of future technologies on the company's Redmond campus.

Today, Microsoft is announcing the 10th anniversary of the home, which has a handful of new "scenarios" that could become commonplace in the next five to 10 years.

Woven into the displays are subtle messages about business models that are possible if consumers and companies embrace Microsoft technology. For instance, any kind of music can be played throughout the home, based on a hypothetical subscription service using Microsoft's software for music distribution.

The home is not open to the public, but more than 10,000 Microsoft customers, business partners and journalists have visited it. Cluts said it has hosted government officials from nearly every country.

Who needs keys when a palm scan opens the front door?
Cluts and his team of 10 are likely to wear khaki slacks and wield computer mice while building their home of the future. They pluck promising ideas from Microsoft, computer-research circles and elsewhere, then incorporate them into the home's six rooms on the second floor of Microsoft's on-campus conference center.

"We kind of step back and say, 'Why would anyone care? What would you do with that stuff if it existed?' " he said, standing in a faux entry courtyard.

Cluts pressed his hand against a panel next to luxurious wood entry doors. A light indicated his palm and fingers were recognized, and the doors unlocked with a metallic clunk.

"This is kind of our latest thinking," he said, pulling open the door.

Just inside the airy Northwest modern "home" is a control panel, where Cluts used voice commands to inquire what was happening. "Grace" the computer read from Cluts' schedule.

Cluts and Grace could also control the music, lights and curtains.

Next, Cluts went into a family room with a large video display, where he chose music, movies and video games by using a remote control to scroll through images of album covers and boxes.
BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A glass panel in the kitchen is one monitor and workspace. By touching the screen, one can arrange babysitters, see who's at the door, etc. And if the screen gets messy, just lift the glass and clean it.

This scenario introduces Microsoft's solution to the digital music copying issue. In this home, users have bought digital rights to music in their collection. Reaching further out onto the Web, they can use services that provide access to music collections in return for a monthly fee. With their remote, they can also buy additional media rights.

"We kind of need a way to mentally think about the music that we have access to because, again, we can listen to it all for free as long as we pay our subscription," Cluts said.

A former musician and recording-studio owner and manager, Cluts has spent 10 years at Microsoft on its prototyping team and in its usability, kids, MSN and systems groups.

New to the home are a teenage girl's bedroom that showcases what can be done with radio ID tags retailers are starting to embed into clothes and other products to manage inventory.

When Cluts stood before a mirror in the room and took a shirt from the closet, sensors recognized the item; a display lit up on the mirror, showing the washing instructions for the shirt.
BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A teenager's room in the Microsoft Home includes a system that displays concert posters and plays music stored on a card embedded with a computer chip. When the card is inserted into a reader or a computer, the images are beamed onto the wall and the music is automatically played on whichever device in the room has the best speakers. The scenario envisioned by Microsoft also enables the card issuer — in this case the musician Jewel — to update the card with new data via the Web.

Cluts waved, and the display began listing what other clothes in the girl's collection would match the shirt. It also noted that one of the matching items had been sent to the dry cleaner.

In the living room is a mockup of a video game on a network that senses what devices are available to players in the home — a pen-controlled Tablet PC and a digital camera. Players advance through the game by using these devices to complete tasks, including writing down information from the game or taking and downloading pictures of a certain items.

This Old Microsoft Home's latest remodeling project, completed this summer, emphasizes Microsoft's vision of "seamless computing." That involves technology behind the scenes, automatically doing its work and connecting various devices.

"Technology is embedded across things that you might not even think of as a device," Cluts said. "It's not important for it to be a device. What you're looking for is a way for that technology to solve a pressure point in your life, something that will make your life easier."

A bulletin board in the kitchen, for instance, displays a digital clock and weather information taken from the Internet. When a magnet from a pizza parlor is put on the board, it checks to see if there's new information from the pizza place and displays specials on the board.
BETTY UDESEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A new direction in bulletin boards is one that can read specials, for example, from information accessed through items like advertising magnets from businesses. Weekly specials can come directly to the board if the consumer wishes to get that information. Jonathan Cluts, pictured, is director of the consumer prototyping and strategy team.

Here again, Microsoft is using the home to address both technical challenges and the related policy questions about privacy and personal information.

"You're sitting there thinking, 'Oh, great, it can spam me on my own bulletin board,' " Cluts said. "But remember, I cared enough to actually put this magnet up on my board, that's why it's getting that particular information. If I care enough to put this magnet here, I'd probably like to know their number and probably am interested in their specials."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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