The home of the future will be smarter, cleaner and more serene, thanks to a new generation of stylish appliances that truly earn their keep.
Having danced around the edges of technology for a decade, manufacturers are taking the plunge. Keeping house in the new millennium, they promise, will be less work with a robotic vacuum cleaner. A computer in the kitchen will be the command center for the entire house. Alarm clocks that simulate sunrise and bird chirps could be just the thing for a Zen-like wake-up.
''This is not the futuristic Jetsons' kitchen, but a real application of technology,'' said Peter Giannetti, editor of New York's HomeWorld Business, a trade magazine covering the housewares industry.
''We are looking at the emergence of the smart house, and the core of much of this will be housewares used on a daily basis,'' he said. ''We are moving very fast into a high-tech environment.''
The industry is rolling out appliances, large and small, for nearly every room of the house, assisted by a high-tech array of computer chips, computer design techniques, super-efficiency filters, natural spectrum lights and robotics. The results are functional and artistic, aimed at comfort-seeking baby-boomer nesters and computer and gadget-savvy Generation Xers, who are renting their first apartments or buying first homes. The appliances focus on four lifestyle themes: the kitchen, master bedroom, living room and home office.
''People want control over their lives, and they want to communicate easily, reach things easily and get tasks done fast,'' said Elissa Moses, director of global consumer and market intelligence for giant Philips Electronics in New York. ''In the 1950s, a dishwasher and television defined the good life. Today it's a home cinema system connected to a home office that ties you into the world.''
Here's a quick tour of today's evolving house and sample products that are either in the market or on their way:
The kitchen, already the home's central gathering place, also will become the central command station, linked by a communication center to every room in the house.
''You are seeing the beginning of interactivity electronics such as kitchen computer centers linked to shopping sites and cooking programs,'' Giannetti said.
One of the leaders in the interactive race is CMI Worldwide in Seattle, which bills itself as ''your kitchen lifestyle company.'' The company has combined TV and computer technologies for its new Icebox (information, communications, entertainment-box) appliance.
It is designed for the kitchen because that's where 70 percent of all decisions are made regarding home, health and nutrition, said Heidi Mikkelsen, CMI project coordinator.
''The concept is revolutionary,'' she said. ''It combines the features of TV, video and audio CDs, stereo and home security. Add easy Internet access for e-mail, shopping and information.''
The cook in the kitchen can shift the screen from a room-by-room video to an appliance monitor, to CDs that feature chefs with tips on whatever meal is being prepared. It's packaged in a compact case with kitchen-proof (that means waterproof and grease resistant) keyboard and remote control. Sized to fit on a kitchen counter. The counter model will retail for $500 when it hits the market in late April.
On a more familiar note, new kitchen products will be easier to clean, self-regulating and self-monitoring. Indoor grills utilizing infrared technology are energy efficient and cook faster and more efficiently. A glass toaster, which was introduced as a prototype this year by Philips Electronics, was a huge hit with consumers, who liked being able to tell if the toast was burning.
The master bedroom will combine with a bathroom to create a health and relaxation center that is soothing, climate controlled and allergy free.
Health is in. As baby boomers continue to move along the timeline, the emphasis on healthy living (''the new era of personal wellness'' is one label for the 21st century) is manifested at all levels, from better toothbrushes to kits that test water for pesticides, and cutting-edge air cleaners.
''We are heavily on top of the health market,'' said Liz Morton, spokeswoman for Stamford, Conn.-based Verilux, the ''healthy lighting company,'' which has evolved from making full-spectrum lighting tubes for the art industry to consumer products.
The business recently introduced the Rise & Shine natural alarm clock, a table lamp that simulates sunrise and sunset and features sound therapy (options include birds, wind, rain with thunder and whales with surf). Priced at about $200, it uses a natural spectrum lightbulb, meaning it contains an element that filters out the excessive yellow part of the spectrum, resulting in a healthier, more natural white light.
The near-future living room walls may come down to combine with the family room in a multifunctional living area incorporating a private screening room with a home theater system. Artwork, which continues to be an important element of home decor, is becoming more than a picture in a frame. Computer-chip technology allows art pieces to be personally designed, perhaps in moving images, or the realism of a picture window complete with an outdoor garden.
For living room comfort, sensor technology will monitor temperature and moisture, and a new generation of vacuum cleaners will maintain strict air quality standards.
''We are really focusing on technology that meets consumer needs, and right now consumers are concerned about the air in their homes and sanitizing surfaces,'' said Kathy Luedke, spokeswoman for Eureka.
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