The 1990s, futurists say, will be a decade in which the technologies already in place will become highly sophisticated and refined: American families can expect to see a tremendous amount of computer and robotic technology in the home.
Based on 35 interviews with futurists and experts as diverse as automotive designers and sociologists, we offer a glimpse into what is likely to be in store for upscale Orange County families by the end of the next decade.
The following is a day in the life of the trend-setting Coopers, a fictitious Orange County family in the high-tech year of 1999. Meet the Coopers: John, 48; Jane, 36; and their 10-year-old son, Marty.
“John . . . John, it’s time to wake up.”
The woman’s voice was but a whisper, a hint of seduction in the velvety purr.
But John Cooper, his face embedded in his pillow, did not stir in the dimly lighted bedroom. A minute later, the voice returned, a bit louder, a bit more urgent.
“John . . . come on, John, it’s 7 o’clock. You’ll be late for work .. . it’s time to get up.”
Still no response. Another minute passed before the voice returned. This time the purr had an attitude.
“OK, John, get up. Rise and shine, big boy. I’m not kidding.”
John, wide awake now, recognized the voice: It was his wife Jane’s. He turned to look at her, but she was still sound asleep and would not have to get up for another half-hour.
Sitting up in bed, John ran his hand through his tangled hair and chuckled: Jane had recorded the wake-up message into their Smart House system’s morning sequence. John had grown accustomed to the regular, synthesized wake-up message, but he rather liked hearing Jane’s voice coming out of the bedside speaker. She must have recorded it yesterday afternoon, he thought-before their fight last night.
They rarely fight-unlike the constant battles John and his ex-wife used to have-but when he and Jane do fight, it’s always over the same old thing: money, or, more accurately, not having enough money.
It’s not easy living in Orange County in 1999, especially when you’re trying to maintain a standard of living like the upscale Coopers enjoy: One big family vacation trip a year, taking the high-speed bullet train from Anaheim to Las Vegas for the weekend, frequent dinners out and-when they don’t feel like microwaving or going out to dinner-gourmet meals delivered to their door, a big trend in the ’90s.
And while Jane spends far more money on clothes than John does, he has his own weakness: keeping up with all the latest electronic gadgetry that has become available in the ’90s.
Then there’s the monthly payment on their new home in Laguna Niguel, which the Coopers bought last year. John still lies awake some nights with a knot in his stomach thinking about making that monster payment.
But it is their dream home and at least they can afford to live in Orange County.
John’s younger brother, Larry, and his family live out in one of the new high-density developments in Riverside County and would give anything to be able to afford to live in Orange County, where the median-priced house now tops $500,000. Larry spends more than four hours a day on the freeway commuting to and from his job in Huntington Beach.
As an American executive with a Japanese multinational corporation, John is making more money than ever, but it’s never quite enough-not even with Jane now working steadily as a free-lance writer for several national magazines.
But John Cooper has other things on his mind this Friday morning.
Like many aging baby boomers in the so-called sandwich generation, he has been thinking about asking his 78-year-old mother to come live with them. He admires the way his mother, a widow since 1995, has maintained her independence, living alone in her Irvine condo. But she hasn’t been in the best of health lately and her arthritis has cut down on her mobility.
He is also worried about Tiffany, his 15-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Boston but comes out to visit several times a year. During his last communication with his ex-wife by computer-far less volatile than trying to talk to her over the phone-she said that Tiffany is uncommunicative, her grades are slipping and she’s hanging around a “tough” crowd at school. He would have to call and have a talk with Tiffany this weekend.
Then there’s Marty. The boy is simply spending too much time in virtual reality. They bought him the virtual reality computer for his 10th birthday this year. Even John has to admit that it’s a trip putting on the special goggles and suit and interacting in a three-dimensional simulated world of your own choosing. But virtual reality has become even more of an obsession than Nintendo was back in the ’80s for many children. Although it’s not interfering with Marty’s schoolwork, the kid literally spends hours in virtual reality. He’d have to have a talk with Marty, too.
Life seemed so much simpler in the ’80s, John thought, as he eased out of bed and headed for the bathroom, silently grumbling to himself that he has got to stop having these soul-searching sessions so early in the morning.
As John passed the threshold sensor, the bathroom light turned on automatically-not the harsh bright light that used to force him to squint until his eyes adjusted to the glare, but a dim light at first, which gradually grew brighter.
Just as the light reached the proper level of brightness, the shower turned on, automatically adjusting to John’s pre-programmed, preferred water temperature.
The Coopers’ bathroom has taken on a more social role in their lives in the ’90s. In fact, they have to remember to stop referring to it as the bathroom and call it by its more trendy name, “the body room.” Much larger than the bathroom in their old house, the Coopers’ body room includes exercise equipment, a Jacuzzi tub and a double shower.
Like many people in the ’90s, John and Jane Cooper exercise regularly. Jane works out on the computerized exercise cycle in the morning; John works out with the electronic resistance weight equipment after work-to wind down from his “drive-time aggravation,” as he calls his freeway commute to Costa Mesa.
Like many aging baby boomers in the ’90s, John is less interested in having a “body beautiful” than in maintaining his health and adding years to his life. The same goes for nutrition. Both he and Jane are careful about what they eat, and whenever John does indulge in a big, juicy cheeseburger on his lunch hour, he feels tremendous guilt.
As John showered, the next phase of the Smart House system’s morning sequence went to work: After opening the drapes in other parts of the house, it started the coffee-maker in the kitchen and, as soon as the coffee was done, began warming the family’s oat-bran muffins in the microwave.
The first prototype for the Smart House-a gas, plumbing and wiring system that enables total home automation-was completed in 1989 in Baltimore and the Coopers toured another prototype in Covina when it opened for public tours in 1991. The system, which handles the distribution and control of all energy and communications within the home-had become commonplace in new homes a few years ago and many owners of older homes have begun having their houses retrofitted.
The computer-like operation enables the Coopers to heat or cool only those areas of their home that they choose, and to do it at the desired level in each room. The lights and appliances in each room can be activated by any switch in the house, and also by remote control, sensors, the telephone (at home or away from home), video touch screens and-the most recent development-voice recognition. Of course, everything can also be part of the day’s pre-programmed sequence.
Now shaved and showered, John stood in front of his closet.
“Well, what should I wear today?” he said in a quiet voice, careful not to awaken Jane.
John really loves this part of his morning routine.
At the sound of his voice, the closet door glides open and a synthesized voice responds from an overhead speaker: “According to today’s weather report, it’s 47 degrees outside and likely to rain. You’re going to want a raincoat with a lining in it . . . I remember you wore a gray suit yesterday. Why don’t you wear a blue suit and red tie today? . . . And remember, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.”
Bad computer humor, John thought, grinning as he began to dress.
Meanwhile, the Smart House system deactivated the home security system so that Arthur could go outside to fetch the morning newspaper. Arthur is the Cooper’s home robot.
Although even John scoffed at the idea of a robot servant a decade ago, he was, naturally, one of the first to buy one when they came on the market in the early ’90s. The first generation of home robots were a giant leap beyond the early robotic vacuum cleaners.
Of course, the early home robots weren’t as sophisticated as Arthur. The first models had limited voice recognition and could perform only simple household tasks such as cleaning the floor.
But with advances made in artificial intelligence and vision and tactile capabilities, the second generation of rechargeable, battery-operated home robots can perform a wide array of household tasks, including preparing simple meals, polishing shoes, washing the car, filling the dog’s food dish, watering the plants, clearing the table and loading the dishwasher.
John gets a special kick out of having Arthur pass out hors d’oeuvres at parties.
The new models are more humanlike than the early ones-visually they’re a cross between R2D2 and C3PO-and with their sophisticated technology, they offer true companionship. At least that’s what the dealers like to say.
The home robot was considered a luxury item when it originally came on the market, its first owners being the kind of people who had to decide whether to buy a home robot or another Mercedes. But as prices have come down, it has now become a choice between buying a computerized servant or buying a new Chevrolet.
Sipping his coffee, John instructed Arthur, who had placed the newspaper on the kitchen table, to wake up Marty.
“And if he’s already awake, make sure he’s not playing virtual reality,” John added.
“Yes, sir,” replied Arthur, turning and wheeling out of the room.
Although John likes to read the electronic versions of several out-of-state newspapers’ business sections, he’s glad he hasn’t had to change the time-honored ritual of thumbing through a good old-fashioned newspaper while he drinks his morning coffee.
Jane, sweaty from her morning workout, walked into the kitchen for her morning cup of coffee. As if on cue, they both apologized for fighting the night before and John kissed Jane.
They were interrupted by Arthur, who had returned from Marty’s room.
“Is Marty up?” Cooper asked.
“Yes, sir.” the robot replied.
“Is he in virtual reality?”
“No sir, he is not. He is getting dressed.”
Jane began instructing Arthur what she wanted done today: Scrub the kitchen floor, wash her car this afternoon and-this one’s her favorite-clean the bathroom.
Although Jane must occasionally travel on assignments, she works mostly at home. Today she has two phone interviews lined up after she takes Marty to school and then she has to start writing her piece for Cosmo on “How to Maintain a Meaningful Relationship in the New Millennium.”
“It’s 7:50-you’re running late,” announced the synthesized Smart House voice, a pre-programmed reminder for John.
John gulped the rest of his coffee and set the cup in the sink. Arthur would wash it later in the morning.
After kissing Jane goodby, John walked into the garage and approached the driver’s side of his new slate-gray sedan. He had traded in the snazzy sports car in ’98, his sole concession to middle-aged craziness, saying he no longer felt that sporty or that crazy. Like most vehicles today, John’s new car is powered by a smaller, cleaner engine that delivers the same power as a larger engine but with less fuel consumption.
The car also has voice-printed door openings and ignition, making car keys a thing of the past.
“Hi, George,” said John, the novelty of speaking to his car having worn off long ago.
The door snapped unlocked and John eased into the driver’s seat, which automatically readjusted to his body’s pre-programmed contours and turned on the heater and the radio to John’s favorite oldies station. That reminded him: He must get two tickets to the upcoming Stones’ concert at Irvine Meadows.
At 56, John thought, Jagger’s still got it!
As the garage door swung open and John eased the car out of the driveway, a computer screen on the instrument panel lit up, giving him a readout of the time, temperature and traffic conditions.
He punched in his destination-Costa Mesa-and a map system linked to a central Traffic Control Center displayed the quickest route based on current traffic conditions as reported by roadway censors and closed-circuit freeway television cameras.
As John drove through a slight drizzle, the map on the screen continually indicated his car’s position and provided constant traffic information.
Fortunately, there were no major traffic mishaps on the 405 today-so far, at least-but traffic is still heavy as usual. Despite the Smart Street technology, tollways and more businesses allowing employees to work flexible hours, traffic is still one of biggest problems in Orange County, which now has a population of more than 2.6 million people who drive 2.1 million vehicles.
As John entered the 405, the car’s radar-controlled collision-avoidance monitor warned him of a road-hazard ahead: a ladder in the right lane, which he swerved to avoid. The adaptive cruise control adjusted the car’s speed to the flow of traffic which is, as it always is at this time of morning, creeping along at 18 m.p.h.
Jane and Marty climbed into Jane’s electric car for the short drive to school. A breakthrough in batteries in the mid-1990s boosted the popularity of electric cars since they can now go farther and perform better. Though they look like any other compact car, they are still used only by people who don’t have to drive more than 100 miles a day.
John pulled into the parking lot of his firm’s U.S. headquarters, slipping his Smart Card into a slot to open the gate. The Smart Card resembles a credit card, but it is actually a hand-held computer with a microprocessor and memory. It not only carries John’s employee ID number but his 100 most frequently dialed phone numbers, his car maintenance records and a host of other personal data. And because it carries both insurance and family medical records, the card saved time and paper work when John had to rush Marty to the hospital for a broken nose last month after Marty got carried away playing a game of virtual reality Dungeons and Dragons and slammed into his bedroom wall.
John sat down at his desk and logged on his computer. Unlike earlier models, the computers of the ’90s have become much more user-friendly.
“Good morning, John,” the computer’s synthesized voice said.
“Good morning,” John cheerily replied, having come to view his office computer as more of a colleague than a metal box now that computers were designed more for decision-making functions than merely spewing out information on command.
After verbally running through John’s electronic messages that had come in since he logged off the night before, the computer provided John with a report of market indicators posted on the international stock exchanges.
John was then reminded that the weekly teleconference with the office in New York would begin in five minutes. He walked down the hall to the teleconference room where he and four other executives sat down facing a large, high-definition screen with a video camera mounted above. On the screen were four other American executives sitting in a similar room in New York with John’s visiting counterpart from Japan.
“Ohayo gozaimasu, Tanaka-san,” said John.
“And good morning to you, Mr. Cooper,” replied Tanaka.
The morning reading session over, Marty’s teacher, Mrs. Brown, instructed the class to open their desks for their history lesson. Marty’s school was one of the first in the county to have fully computerized classrooms. The students’ desks look similar to traditional school desks, but the tops lift up, becoming high-definition, flat computer screens and revealing computer keyboards.
As the students logged on to their computers, Mrs. Brown informed them that they would be beginning their study of U.S. presidents with a look at the presidency of George Washington. They would start, she said, by taking a tour of Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
With their menu of classroom subjects in front of them, the students touched the word “history” on their screens. They then called up the George Washington file, and a video image of the outside of Washington’s Virginia mansion appeared on their screens.
As Mrs. Brown instructed, Marty touched the front door of the house and the screen instantly displayed the inside of Washington’s home. Mrs. Brown said she would first lead them on a tour of the house and then they’d be free to continue the tour on their own, touching different parts of their screen to enter the different rooms and listening to a narration on their earphones.
Marty enjoyed the computer-aided history lessons but, he thought, it was not as exciting as virtual reality. He couldn’t wait to get home.
Back at the Cooper home, Jane decided to phone John’s mother to see how she was doing.
As Grandma Cooper’s living room telephone rang, a read-out on the bottom of the phone informed her: Jane Cooper calling. The high-fidelity phones of the ’90s made it seem as though the caller were in the same room. Video phones, a failure when they were test-marketed briefly by AT&T in the early ’70s, are now being used in business. However, the general public is still not interested in having that sort of invasion of privacy in their homes. As Jane told John when he said he would love to have one: “I’m not combing my hair just for a wrong number.”
The two women talked for 10 minutes and after she hung up, Grandma Cooper switched off the TV.
“Robert, I need help getting up,” she said to her home robot, which had been standing silently next to the television.
“Yes, ma’am,” the robot said, wheeling over to her chair and extending an arm to help her rise.
Robert escorted Mrs. Cooper to the bathroom and waited outside the door.
John had bought the robot for his mother last Christmas. Despite initial resistance to having the high-tech stranger in her home, Grandma Cooper had grown to enjoy Robert’s company: It helped take the edge off living alone. Her Pekingese, Lady, however, still viewed Robert as an unwelcome intruder and nipped at Robert’s wheels as the robot helped Mrs. Cooper back into her chair.
“I’m having two friends over for lunch today, Robert,” Mrs. Cooper said. “What should we have?”
The robot suggested a chef’s salad and maybe a nice bottle of white wine.
Mrs. Cooper thought that was a fine idea, adding: “I think you should open the wine at 11 so it has a chance to breathe.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Robert said, ignoring the feisty little dog’s yapping.
While Jane was out of the house running errands and picking up Marty from school, the Smart House began its daily inventory of the Coopers’ refrigerator and pantry. That done, it then called the supermarket and submitted a list of needed items and the time for delivery.
Although they pay extra for the delivery, the Coopers, like many people in the ’90s, feel their time is more valuable than to spend it shopping for groceries.
While that was happening, the Cooper’s refrigerator experienced compressor failure. Most people don’t recognize that kind of failure until they open the door and smell the meat, but the Smart House was immediately aware of the problem.
Had the Coopers been home, the system would have alerted them by voice and by flashing a message on the bottom of their TV screen.
Instead, the system automatically dialed the pre-programmed number of the appliance service representative. The rep called back, addressing the refrigerator directly and running a diagnostic test on the appliance over the phone, enabling a repairman to have the correct replacement part when he came out.
John couldn’t help laughing last week when his neighbor down the street told him that when their water heater broke while they were out, their Smart House dialed the Smart House next door and asked for a referral.
Although his parents had been after him to play outside more, it had started to rain again and Marty had a good excuse to stay in today. His homework was done and he knew what he wanted to do.
“It’s raining and there’s nothing to do,” he whined to his mother in her study.
Jane, immersed in her writing, told him to play in his room.
“But there’s nothing to do,” complained Marty.
Jane knew what he was up to, but not wanting to hear him whine the rest of the afternoon, she took the easy way out: “Why don’t you see if there are any virtual games?”
Marty grinned and returned to his bedroom.
Standing in the middle of his room, the boy donned his DataGloves, his Eyephone goggles and virtual reality suit, which was connected via a wireless link to a computer. The goggles have built-in headphones and a small screen in front of each eye and the suit, which resembles an aerobic outfit, contains tiny censors. First used by architects in the late ’80s to allow clients to “explore” a building before it existed, the virtual realty equipment became a home entertainment phenomenon by the mid-’90s.
As soon as he was suited up, Marty was no longer in his bedroom. Or so it appeared looking through his goggles.
He was now at a virtual reality park, standing in front of a recreation center. Because his bedroom is not big enough for walking and running in virtual reality, he stands on a special pad: Whenever he wants to walk or run, he merely leans in a different direction and his virtual reality self will glide in whatever direction he leans.
Marty experienced the feeling of walking into the virtual reality recreation center. Once inside, he walked up to a row of three-dimensional miniature dioramas. The dioramas resemble fish aquariums, only the “fish” in this case are other virtual reality players interacting, via the phone line, in different settings. In one, they’re taking archery lessons: Marty could see the children shooting bows and arrows at haystack targets. In another, they’re learning about the moon, only the children are playing on what appears to be the actual lunar surface.
Whichever diorama Marty decides to put his hand into, he will be instantly transported to that scene.
Marty dipped his hand into the baseball scene, which appeared to get bigger and bigger until it was so big that he was inside it.
The players were just beginning to choose sides and Marty volunteered to pitch.
Stepping to the mound, he wound up and hurled the ball to the plate.
The batter swung and missed. Strike one!
John was stuck in traffic, as usual after work-especially on Fridays when everyone is getting a head start on the weekend. John was not in a good mood: The Stones concert was sold out. He turned on his Stones CD, the aging bad boys of rock and roll singing, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Tired of playing ball, Marty rubbed his hands together, causing him to return to the virtual reality recreation center lobby.
Standing in front of the bank of 3-D simulated dioramas again, he dipped his hand into the scene showing the rec center’s dinosaur class.
He instantly found himself in a prehistoric landscape watching a huge brontosaurus lumber by. Marty decided to “become” a dinosaur and experience what it feels like to thunder through the forest from the point of view of Tyrannsaurus rex.
John, still creeping along in traffic, felt his right front tire blow out. But that was no problem. John’s car has “run-flat” tires: when punctured, the tires remain semi-rigid and are good for another 100 to 200 miles. Of course, you’re not supposed to go more than 50 m.p.h. but, in John’s case, he’s only going 10 m.p.h. anyway. He phoned Jane on the car phone to say he’d be late. Jane said she was having dinner delivered.
Back in the virtual reality recreation center, Marty decided to join the group of kids building their own house with imaginary tools and lumber. He laughed hysterically as he squished and then stretched the house into grotesque shapes.
John rolled into the garage, greeting Jane in the kitchen.
“No luck on the Stones,” he said.
Arthur was setting the table.
Jane: “You’re just in time.”
John: “I’m beat; I’m glad we’re staying in tonight.”
Jane, laughing: “We always stay in.”
Settling into his favorite chair, John picked up the remote and turned on TV. The high-definition, digital TVs have made ghost images, distortion and outside noises a thing of the past.
As he absent-mindedly ran through the several hundred channels now available, John slipped his Smart Card into a slot on the phone next to him. He called up the local bookstore and had them electronically download-and bill to his account-the two best-sellers Jane has been wanting. When she flies on a magazine assignment to Chicago next week, she will be able to read them by simply slipping her Smart Card into her portable video viewer.
With the sound of rain falling heavily on the roof and the Coopers gathered for the evening in their high-tech yet cozy living room, the scene looked like a ’90s version of a Norman Rockwell family-life tableau.
John is now watching a movie he has rented over the phone line from the neighborhood video store. Jane is reading an electronic magazine on the living room computer.
And Marty is. . . .
Where is Marty?
“Arthur,” said John, realizing he hadn’t see his son in several hours, “go see what that boy is up to.”
“Yes sir,” droned Arthur from his corner.
With his virtual reality suit locked in the closet for the rest of the weekend, Marty was already sound asleep when Jane told John she was going to bed.
John, however, decided to finish reading a story in the newspaper that he had started in the morning-yet another feature on what life is going to be like in the new century. Newspapers just can’t seem to get enough of looking ahead, he mused, wondering if the first decade of the 21st Century would really turn out the way futurists were predicting.
The Smart House automatically activated the security system and Arthur, who spent most of the evening shining the Coopers’ shoes, wheeled himself into the closet-sized robot’s pantry off the kitchen and plugged himself in for his nightly recharge.
Jane was already in bed, her face turned to the wall, when John finally crawled in.
“Good night, John.”
It was that velvety woman’s voice again, still a seductive purr.
John smiled, thinking Jane must have recorded a good-night message into the evening sequence. But as he closed his eyes, he heard the velvety voice again.
“Good night, John. . . . ”
John looked over at Jane. She wasn’t asleep.
The Smart House turned off the light.
Sources for the day-in-the-life scenario:
Tim Willard, managing editor of the Futurist magazine and director of communications for the World Future Society, a Bethesda, Md., clearinghouse for information about the future.
Gareth Branwyn, computer editor of the Futurist magazine.
Tom Mandel, senior management consultant at SRI International, an international research and consulting firm in Menlo Park, Calif.
Selwyn Enzer, senior research fellow with the International Business, Education and Research program at USC.
Mark Baldassare, professor of social ecology at UC Irvine and director of the Orange County Annual Survey.
Kingsley Davis, distinguished professor of sociology at USC and associate of USC’s Population Research Laboratory.
FM-2030, formerly F.M. Esfandiary, a Los Angeles-based futurist and author of “Are You a Transhuman?”
Marvin Adelson, professor in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning at UCLA.
Kenneth P. Geremia, manager of public relations for the Smart House, Upper Marlboro, Md.
Joseph F. Engelberger, chairman of Transitions Research Corp. in Danbury, Conn., home robot developers.
Jaron Lanier, CEO of VPL Research Inc., Redwood City, Calif., producer of virtual reality hardware and software.
Nicholas Vitalari, associate professor of management in the Graduate School of Management at UCI.
Joe Griffin, project director of the AT&T Smart Card.
Robert W. Lucky, executive director of Communications Science Research Division of AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Chen Tsai, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCI.
Behnam Bavarian, assistant professor of electrical engineering at UCI, and director of UCI’s Robotics Research Lab.
Tony DeLap, professor of studio art at UCI.
Toni Simonetti, General Motors Corp. spokeswoman.
Tom Scott, director of international design with the Ford Motor Co. Design Staff.
Stanley T. Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission.
William C. Woollett Jr., executive director of the Transportation Corridor Agencies.
Joe Harake, director of special projects for Caltrans.
Greg Bodenhamer, director of the Back in Control Center in Orange and author of “Back In Control: How to Get Your Children to Behave.”
Judith Treas, professor of sociology at UCI.
David Juroe of Orange, president of Orange County Chapter of Stepfamily Assn. of America.
Carol Hatch, executive director of Orange County Commission on the Status of Women.
Peter Bishop, associate professor in the Studies of the Future program at University of Houston-Clear Lake.
Judy Auerbach, director of USC’s Institute for the Study of Men and Women in Society.
Family Research Council, Washington, D.C.
Tom Coleman, director of the Family Diversity Project in Los Angeles.
Sherry Novick, California Joint Select Task Force on the Changing Family.
Marcus Felson, associate professor at the USC Social Science Research Institute.
Stanley Buder, urban historian, Baruch College City University of New York.
Robbie Berns, professor and chairman of Human Development Dept. at Saddleback College, and author of “Child, Family, Community.”
David Snyder, consulting futurist, Bethesda, Md.
Additional reporting from Times staff writers Lynn Smith, Jeffrey A. Perlman and Steven R. Churm was used for this story.
Written by Dennis McLellan and published by the Los Angeles Times on December 21, 1989