Her House is Her Computer Castle : Dallas Woman Designs Home With Electronic ‘Servants’

UPI Science Writer

For Portia Isaacson, FutureHome is a fantasy come true.

If a business meeting keeps her from getting home in time for her husband’s birthday, a computer-controlled scenario, complete with loving messages, romantic lighting, favorite music and appropriate videos, will let him know he hasn’t been forgotten.

A quick call to--or from--a computer ensures that her hot tub will be warm when she arrives or informs her when her teen-aged children have arrived home from school.

Answering the door is obsolete. A camera shows who it is by sending a close-up view of newcomers to wherever Isaacson is in the house. Then she can open the door remotely.


Can’t find the keys or the husband? Via video cameras she can scan shelf tops and table surfaces. Motion sensors track each person’s room-to-room movements.

It will take 13 computers, 14 telephones, 26 TV monitors, eight miles of wiring, several video cameras and video cassette recorders for Isaacson’s new home fulfill her dreams--at least for now.

Electronic Showcase

The white, two-story, stucco suburban Dallas home, nearly complete for a September move-in, will be an electronic showcase, but with spiral staircase, hot tub, art gallery and style, says Isaacson, a computer scientist.

Isaacson’s house, which she dubbed FutureHome to distinguish it as a model of the future, is her attempt to meld interior design with high technology. For those still awed by computerized answering machines, her tastes might seem extreme. She has robots for pets, a sculpture of stereo and video components that “seem to float in space,” futuristic plant stands that are really computer terminals, and a media “command center,” that includes four 25-inch TVs, a 40-inch TV projection screen, two VCRs, and compact and laser disk players.

The house may seem outlandish, even Orwellian, to some, but to Isaacson it is the bellwether of homes to come.

At FutureHome a master computer is in charge. It receives data from the rest of the house and sends out commands, dimming lights, changing thermostat settings, and switching TV channels and volumes the way a person with infrared remote controls might control a TV set.


Individualized Codes

Using a text-to-speech converter, the computer can answer and make telephone calls. When someone--a housekeeper or tardy teen-ager, for instance--punches in his individualized codes to get into the front door, the computer can be cued to let Isaacson know, either where she is in the home or at work.

“It can tell me the condition of the house I want it to monitor,” she said.

Not only can lights or favorite music be turned on as a person enters a room, a synthesized voice can welcome guests, remind a son to keep his feet off furniture or wake a husband in time for dinner.

Even the electrical outlets are high-tech. There’s the usual place to plug in the toaster, as well as jacks for plugging in a computer and a telephone.

Heating and air conditioning are regulated electronically, and the computer tracks temperatures in each room.

Once computerized, the entire house can be run from any one of 10 personal computers by pointing with a light pen to a particular room pictured on the screen, and designating a task to be completed: lights on or off, specific music to be played, TV show to be recorded by the VCR.

Or “scripts” can be written that coordinate activities for emergencies, normal household maintenance, even family feuds.

For example, to take care of intruders, a security script: If a security sensor detects a break-in, the computer could be programmed to flash all the lights, blast the stereos, wake up and tell the residents where the stranger is lurking, perhaps even inform the surprised would-be burglars that they are being filmed.

Of course such a high-tech home can have its drawbacks. There’s no hiding from an irate spouse. Special sensors detect and pinpoint movement in the house and track its occupants.

“Slamming doors is totally obsolete,” Isaacson said about family spats. Instead, the angry spouse can direct the computer to follow the offending partner from room to room, switching on bothersome music, turning off lights or making pestering comments.

Masking the technology with traditional decor didn’t appeal to Isaacson. “My perfect house would look like an Enterprise command ship,” she said, referring to the TV series “Star Trek” spaceship. Her interior decorators strived to achieve this.

Electronic Sculpture

Instead of a wall-sized painting, an electronic sculpture welcomes visitors. The black components of an audio and video system are set into a glossy, black metal wall on shelves not visible to viewers. Recessed lighting along the wall edges adds to the effect.

“It looks like one machine rather than isolated components,” Isaacson said.

Part of the “machine” is a media room with a 12-by-20-foot wall containing speakers, amplifiers, tuners, turntable, videocassette recorders and a 40-inch projection television flanked by four 25-inch TV sets.

“It has all the things you could want to watch--’Star Wars’ in its full implementation,” said Isaacson, who admits to being a video addict.

The sale of Isaacson’s Dallas marketing research company, Future Computing Inc., to McGraw-Hill for a reported $8 million made her home of the future possible.

“Some people would have bought a yacht or taken a trip around the world. I wanted a house like this,” she said. “My whole life has led up to this.”

The computerization added about $500,000 to the cost of Isaacson’s home, which she eventually hopes to sell for about $2 million.

Begun in August, 1984, the renovation of the 6,000-square-foot house has involved 10 contractors, each of whom planned and installed his section of the house without knowing the overall plan.

Had they known, she said, “frankly they would have probably gotten a little terrified.”

Isaacson developed some of the computer programs and computer hardware necessary to pull the systems together, but the “massive software development,” as she described it, also required a full-time programmer and an electrical engineer.

Because each system in the house does not depend on the computer system, a new owner can pull the plug and still have a comfortable, enjoyable house, she said.

The veteran computer-industry watcher says the days of computers as “toys” and electronic novelties is over. Now consumers are willing and eager to invest in more expensive machines capable of entertaining them, keeping track of budgets, phone calls, and investments and, in general, making life easier.

“My house is my personal pet project,” she said. “Because of my hands-on interest in the technology and because I’m a woman, that has something to do with why I have done the house in this way.”

Isaacson says her house is the first to try to computerize more than just one room, or one or two aspects of home life. Others have built houses with security and energy maintenance under computer control. A few manipulate their stereo and video equipment through computers, monitor the baby’s bedroom or have high tech bathrooms.

“There are enormous design problems in how to get these things together,” she said. “It’s a big problem getting this stuff available for upscale consumers. You can’t just hire it to be done.”

The Japanese are the furthest along, she said, having incorporated computers into consumer electronics, and General Electric has something in the works, but few others have tried to mate other household functions electronically.

“The different pieces are all made by different companies,” she explained. “They all see themselves in different, distinct channels, so the standards (for equipment) are not intergrated.”

Despite the sophistication of FutureHome, Isaacson admits that young children or dogs could confuse the system’s many sensors and create chaos. But her children are grown up and as for pets, she expects to have only electronic ones--two or three robots.