History is littered with predictions about technologies that would
take over the world. Remember the paperless office? Or the robotic
vacuum cleaner that would seek out dirt and exterminate it?
But how will computing and information technology shape our domestic
lives, our purchasing decisions and the environments in which we live
over the next few years? Will the family home of 2010 or 2020 be an
"intelligent house", full of sensors and actuators that turn things on
and off and even make household purchases in response not to their
owners' commands, but according to the dictates of their own "artificial
The bad news is that we don't know because we cannot predict what
technologies consumers will adopt. Just because something can be made
doesn't mean there will be a market for it.
The good news is that we can make some intelligent guesses about the
future. This is because the technologies we use today have generally
been about for a long time - even if they haven't been visible to the
It looks as though there's a 20- to 25-year lead time between the first
appearance of a technology and its widespread adoption. The personal
computer, for example, first appeared in 1975, but did not become a
common household item until the end of the 90s; the network that
metamorphosed into the internet was up and running in October 1969. The
world wide web was invented in 1990.
Today, computers are still a big deal for most of us. PCs always seem to
cost £1,000, take up a lot of room on a desk or in a briefcase and
require formidable amounts of expertise to operate. But this madness
will pass. Computers will become cheaper, smaller and smarter - to the
point where they become effectively invisible and we stop treating them
as a big deal. In fact, it's already happening. The average executive
saloon car probably has 30 on-board computers installed - but nobody
notices, or even thinks of them as computers.
The implication is that everything - from T-shirts to walls to electric
toasters - can have "computers" inexpensively embedded in them. And if
they have, they can process information. Then the only thing they need
is something to communicate with. And that's where ubiquitous networking
If you think the internet is pervasive, then you ain't seen nothing
The obstacles that have slowed the spread of the net to date - low-speed
connections, the need to use a PC for access and the shortage of
internet addresses - are all in the process of being overcome. The next
generation of mobile phones will offer wireless access to the net at
reasonable connection speeds and we're seeing the arrival of new
generations of personal digital assistants, which will harness the new
Within the home, wireless networking technologies with names such as
Bluetooth, Wi-Fi (a fancy name for wireless Ethernet) and very-low-power
radio already make it possible for devices to communicate with one
another in a domestic environment. And we will soon be able to assign a
unique internet address to just about every object in the known
universe. Put invisible computing and ubiquitous networking together and
what do you have? Answer: a world in which it is easy and inexpensive
for manufacturers to embed intelligent and communicative devices in
So domestic objects will take on a new "intelligence". For example,
researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a
way of cheaply printing electronic ID tags on product packaging. The tag
can broadcast its unique ID number to any device in close proximity.
So imagine buying a packet of fresh pasta complete with its ID tag and
putting it into an intelligent microwave oven with an embedded computer
and a wireless net connection. The oven "reads" the product ID and then
consults a huge online database that tells it (a) what the packet
contains and (b) how much cooking time is required.
Then there's the concept of the networked fridge, which has already
become a media cliche; indeed one Japanese manufacturer has made a
fridge with a screen in the door and a permanent internet connection.
This is not as daft as it seems. For one thing, fridges - unlike TVs,
PCs and hi-fi sets - are always switched on. For another, they tend to
occupy pivotal locations in many households.
And most families already use the fridge door as a bulletin board,
sticking reminders, shopping lists and notes on it. So adding a
flat-panel display might make sense.
But a truly intelligent, networked fridge would not just be a
communications device for people. It would also use its ability to
process information and communicate to do helpful things. It could read
the ID tags of products, for example, and determine use-by dates and
appropriate temperature settings.
It could do stock control - warning its owner when stocks of milk were
running low, or even ordering new stocks from Tesco Direct.
Retailers are gearing up to take advantage of such developments and many
are working on web connections in the home that allow customers to scan
bar-codes to order goods direct. Iceland has held trials of a Woosh
Shopping Pad, which combines modem access and a touch-sensitive screen
as well as an e-mail service.
And you don't even need to be at home when the products you've ordered
electronically are delivered. Consider the networked entrycam. Someone
rings the doorbell to your apartment. A tiny videocamera embedded in the
door frame relays an image of the caller to you. But you're not at home
- you're in an office miles away. The image is appearing on your PDA or
the screen of your mobile phone. It's the plumber you've been trying to
contact for weeks or the Tesco Direct delivery man, so you instruct the
door to let him in.
All these scenarios are achievable now. I've seen the intelligent,
communicating microwave in action, and Nokia has been playing with
networked entrycams for years in Finland. There are innumerable other
variations on the same theme - adaptive central heating and climate
control systems, self-closing blinds, intelligent burglar alarms, video
recorders that scan the airwaves for programmes likely to interest you
and minimise the interruptions from the commercial breaks, phones that
track your movements round the house so that the handset nearest to you
is the only one that rings.
And what does this mean for advertisers? For a start, the way we buy
houses and their contents will probably change. The pre-configured house
or apartment will become a new mine of super-commodity - more expensive
than a car, of course, but subject to the same manufacturing disciplines
and consumer pressure.
Once upon a time, for example, you bought a car and then made a separate
decision about buying and installing an in-car hi-fi system. Now all
cars come with built-in hi-fi. At present, you buy a house and install
your own hi-fi system, burglar alarm and computer networking. In the
future, houses will come with all that stuff built in .
House buyers will become more fickle and amenable to marketing. They
will respond to companies that can offer them dwellings customised to
their lifestyles, and will be capable of being easily reconfigured or
extended as circumstances change.
As for those every-day household purchases, TV technology that can
screen out many commercial messages will mean we're less easy to reach
At the same time, if our fridges can order food direct for us, or if
we're ordering electronically via the web, impulse purchasing is less
likely and we'll be more immune from special offers, in-store promotions
or new countlines and packaging.
All of which will make agencies' jobs more difficult and the emphasis is
likely to switch more heavily to individually targeted commercial
communication, tailored to the individual's lifestyle and demographic.
So while technology will make our everyday lives easier, it will make
the job of advertising to us rather more difficult.
- John Naughton is the chairman of RAB-eye, an independent think-tank
established by the Radio Advertising Bureau to rethink radio for a
digital age. A Brief History of the Future is published by Phoenix.
THE ORANGE HOUSE
Life in Orange's home of the future could easily prove a rather
sedentary experience. Inhabitants won't have to exert themselves to turn
on their TV, do their own shopping or even fill their own bath. But the
prototype home of the future (left), designed by the mobile phone
company to test how mobile phones and central computers can be used to
remotely run our domestic lives, also highlights some interesting
conundrums for marketers and communications companies.
Orange has spent £2 million on the super-home and has been
inviting real families to stay for a fortnight at a time to sample the
set-up. In the Orange home (a converted Victorian farmhouse on what's
now an industrial estate in Hatfield), everything is controlled remotely
- including temperature, lighting and hi-fi. If you're feeling lazy you
can run a bath via the telephone and even specify the water's
temperature and depth.
A central computer in the home will note all the groceries you have
bought (which you have ordered remotely, of course, via the web and
which were delivered direct to your door) and, when told by your fridge
and cupboards that they have been used, it will add them to your next
The fridge that places the grocery orders could become the gateway for
new types of commercial message based on our individual, habitual
So, potentially, there'll be no more wandering down the supermarket
aisles being seduced by shelf wobblers or price promotions. And even if
you really like the new ad campaign for that brand of baked beans, will
you bother to ask your computer to change your order from your usual
Then again, interactivity via the TV will mean access to a whole new
world of commercial information and TV shopping. The only conclusion is
that the task for advertisers is to work out how best to use the TV
medium of the future. - Claire Beale.