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Assistant Community Editor

How Microsoft envisioned the smart home in 1999

Jun 13, 20144 mins

Since the Internet of Things became a trending topic in the past few years, talk about the “smart home” has become somewhat exhausting. We all know what’s possible and why we would want it, and at this point we’re more concerned with how long it’ll be until our things are connected to this much-discussed Internet of Things.

But the major tech companies have seen this coming for decades, and in the 90’s they began quietly preparing for it so they’d be ready for 2014, when the Internet of Things would start to become an actual source of revenue.

Fifteen years ago, Microsoft put together a video that seems like it would have even been dated in 1999 portraying how the family of the future would interact with their smart home. Some of the features are pretty spot-on, while others have already been made obsolete by smartphones and tablets.

The video starts off with biometric authentication for home entry, the idea being that a camera at the front door will scan either the iris or the fingerprints of those trying to get into the home and allow only those who are approved. This technology does exist, of course, but it’s not very common, and given the inconvenience of having to endure a biometric scan every time you want to get in – say, when you’ve forgotten your sunglasses and just need to run in and grab them – I’d say good-old keys still get the job done. Even most luxury apartment buildings still employ the old buzz-and-respond method at the front door.

From there, we see the smart thermostat. Here, it’s a touchscreen attached to the wall, which the user taps to select preset temperature conditions. This is actually a little less convenient than the remote control via smartphone that connected thermostats offer today, and takes us back to a time when nobody could imagine carrying tiny internet-connected computer in their pocket.


Speaking of which, the video also shows voicemails being played over speakers that the user has apparently installed throughout the house. Imagine spending money on speakers and a voicemail system only to find that everyone you know would rather just text you?

We do get to see a text message (oddly enough sent from a desktop PC to a cellphone) on a 1999 version of a smartphone. It looks more like the original Nintendo Gameboy than any smartphone on the market, but with a rectangular touchscreen, it shows pretty impressive foresight.

The desktop PC in the kitchen is another expected innovation that’s already obsolete when people would just use their smartphone or tablet, but what they use it for is a little bit creepy. In 1999, Microsoft’s vision of the future smart home involved GPS tracking for every member of the family, so a central hub in the kitchen could show where they are at all times. I’m not sure if this is just something that’ll never happen or just something that hasn’t happened yet, but I am sure it would correlate with a sudden spike in divorce rate.

Voice control makes an appearance, but is not nearly as common as it should be. The family in the video use it to make a phone call, but use a desktop PC to send text messages and a wall-mounted touchscreen to control appliances. Why not just use voice command for all of it?

One of the more impressive predictions is how groceries were handled. It shows a prototype of the grocery-scanning wand that Amazon would go on to release this year, as well as the smart trashcan that scans the item being thrown away and automatically adds it to a list of groceries that need to be re-stocked. If there’s one thing we could take away from this video, it’s the idea of syncing grocery lists with grocery stores for home delivery. All the technology is here to do this right now, and it’s surprising no one has turned the traditional grocery shopping process on its head.

Overall, Microsoft’s vision of the smart home in 1999 was more accurate than inaccurate, which, 15 years later, is pretty impressive. But you have to wonder if Microsoft would have made the video had they known it would be resurrected and immortalized on the internet, along with all its other embarrassing, 1990s corporate videos.

Assistant Community Editor

Colin Neagle manages blogs for Network World, including but not limited to those published on the Cisco Subnet, Microsoft Subnet, and Open Source Subnet. He also writes feature articles and blog posts about emerging technologies, among other things, and he usually doesn't write about himself in the third person, so please don't judge him by this bio.