03/07/00- Updated 02:37 PM ET

Microsoft tests PC-less smart house

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John Gallagher works before a large video screen in the living area of Microsoft's fully-networked home. (AP)

REDMOND, Wash. (AP) - Imagine coming home and having your house say hello.

No, the house doesn't actually come out and say it. Instead, after it scans your retina on the porch, it unlocks the door for you. Once inside the lights come up, the blinds open and your favorite aria filters through the speakers.

From there, you can dial up your phone messages and e-mail on your TV, pipe the music into the kitchen while you cook dinner and look up a recipe over the Internet. If a music CD or DVD movie is loaded, you can enjoy it from any room in the house.

Home networking is not a new concept. Small companies like X10 and large ones like IBM offer the hardware and software necessary to automate and computerize a home. But it's expensive and requires a powerful home computer or expensive computerized hub to run it all.

Microsoft Corp., however, has designed a networked home that doesn't need a computer.

''Every device in here has just enough of a brain to recognize every other device,'' said Stacy Elliot, spokeswoman for the Microsoft Home.

Microsoft believes the greatest benefit from its networking concept comes because a computer isn't necessary. With pre-installed software on a WebTV device and microchip-equipped appliances and home electronics, the network will be able to recognize each device and figure out what it does.

This concept, called Universal Plug and Play, has a number of supporters in the computing and home electronics industries, though Sun Microsystems, IBM and others have competing concepts.

The Microsoft Home is a six-room mockup on the second floor of Microsoft's new Executive Briefing Center. In it, every light switch has a small video screen that controls music, every TV screen can peer outside to see who's at the door and every CD player, VCR and Internet terminal is linked.

Building a wired home without a computer at its core is somewhat ironic, considering that Microsoft has made its fortune on software for personal and business computers. However, the company's revamped strategy includes efforts to reach out to people who still aren't online and still don't buy computers.

Instead of needing a computer, the Microsoft Home can access the Internet through WebTV, which is already available, or the MSN Web Companion, a device that looks like a computer but only accesses the World Wide Web and Microsoft's Hotmail e-mail system. The easy-to-use Web Companions will be available this summer for far less than a home computer.

The light switches, operated by a touch screen, run on Microsoft's Windows CE software for small devices. They can be programmed with combinations of light and music, as evidenced by the ''romance'' button on the touch screen in the bedroom. Oddly enough, the song ''Hit the Road Jack'' comes through the speakers as the lights dim.

''That's my fault,'' said Aaron Woodman, who led the engineering team that designed the home. He grinned and quickly keyed off the music - an engineer's joke.

Woodman noted that the lights still have traditional switches - it's easier for some people to remember. And there's no accessing the Internet from the touch screens on those switches. The toaster doesn't have Internet access and the TV won't access files from the office.

''Who surfs the Internet from a light switch or a wall panel?'' Elliot said. ''We could do that, but it didn't make sense.''

The Microsoft Home does feature a home office with a traditional computer. And although the computer could access the DVD player, who wants to watch a movie on a 15-inch monitor when in the other room, a 60-inch wide-screen television with rather impressive surround sound awaits?

Every screen features links to the cameras placed around the home. The home owner can see who's knocking at the door or keep tabs on the kids in the other room.

The Microsoft Home as it currently stands is expensive. Elliot and Woodman wouldn't even estimate the price, though Woodman noted that the three large flat-screen TVs in the home are about $16,000 apiece. In addition, the technology isn't necessarily futuristic, but it'll take at least a couple of years before new homes will feature some of the Microsoft Home's wizardry.


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