Watch how eerily Microsoft’s smart home of 1999 predicts our lives today

June 4, 2014
June 4, 2014

Today, Microsoft is playing catch-up on trends from the shift to mobile to the cloud. But for decades it was pretty universally acknowledged as a global leader in technology. And indeed, the 1999 video above (originally highlighted by Gizmodo), where Microsoft lays out the company’s vision for a “smart home” is remarkably prescient. The video and technology mockups are very much of their time, and the occasional appearance of Windows ’98 can be jarring, but it predicts with some accuracy a lot of technology that we use—or are developing—today.

But as it turned out, Microsoft is glaringly absent from many of these services. The video shows a vision where the PC is the main hub device. It has turned out to be the smartphone instead, which is becoming a sort of master remote control. That miss is behind a lot of Microsoft’s troubles.

As the connected home goes rapidly mainstream, companies such as Google, which acquired the smart thermostat-maker Nest, and Apple, which is releasing a home automation hub called HomeKit, that are leading the charge.

But even if Microsoft didn’t fully follow through on its vision, it laid out a pretty fascinating roadmap. Here are seven things Microsoft got right:

Siri

Microsoft’s version of Apple’s virtual personal assistant Siri (or Cortana or Google Now, if you prefer) is called “Astro.” It does everything from making phone calls to adding items to a grocery list, all through voice commands.

People already spend a good amount of time talking to their devices, and voice recognition is proliferating to the point where we might soon be speaking in different dialects to each of our machines.

Screens everywhere

In Microsoft’s video, everything from the thermostat to the family phone to the daughter’s piano had some kind of connected screen, even if the interfaces look fairly cumbersome by today’s standards.

Today, just about everything can come with a screen interface or make use of a connection to a mobile device or other screen.

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YouTube

Connected home

The family in Microsoft’s video is able to set their home’s temperature through a wall pad, voice commands, and any number of other screens, and to notify each other of dinner time through the stove.

We’re already partway there with Nest thermostats—we’re able to change the temperature remotely—and new connected appliances are popping up all the time.

Internet TV

The video describes a system where TV watchers can pick from any medium—cable, DVD, or the web—and watch it wherever. Sounds an awful lot like the increasingly crowded world of internet TV.

Someone looking for that kind of experience today has an occasionally bewildering amount of options and screens to watch them on, from Roku and Chromecast to Amazon FireTV—as well as offerings by cable companies that are expanding to new platforms. Microsoft’s WebTV was an early version of a product and look that’s increasingly common.

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YouTube

Constant mobile messaging

There’s a sequence in the video where the mother checks if her daughter will make it home in time for dinner via a yes/no mobile message.

That looks pretty dated in a time where Google Calendars are artfully maintained and messaging apps have billions of users. But it does preview a culture where instantaneous messaging is a incessant presence throughout our days.

Biometric interfaces

The first scene of the video shows a woman getting to her house, and—after a brief interlude of staring intently at an eye scanner—she pops the door open through.

Eyelock already makes a lock that looks very similar. Fingerprint-reading is likely to become ubiquitous after the release of the iPhone 5S. And there are several companies that make fingerprint-based door locks. A lot of the interaction in the video seems pretty forced, but more and more, our interactions with this kind of technology are pretty routine.

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Location-based apps

The video shows the possibility of pulling up a map and finding someone’s location to see if they could, in this case, stop by a nearby grocery store.

Location based apps have proliferated massively with the rise of the smartphone. FindMe, for example, is a GPS-tracking app for the iPhone.

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