Move into the house of the future

SAN FRANCISCO (11/30/2003) - Ray and Kate Leung are a pioneer family--digital pioneers, that is. They recently moved from an aging 1950s ranch-style house into a new home in the mixed-use Playa Vista community, which lies way out on the wild west side of Los Angeles.

Both Leungs are insurance adjusters with Los Angeles territories. But while Kate checks in at her company's local office every day, the commute to Ray's Sacramento-based company is untenable. Instead, he works full-time on the many PCs, flat-screen TVs, laptops, and peripherals plugged into the convenient Ethernet jacks on the walls of every room in their three-story Playa Vista home. When he feels like straying to the couch, Ray connects his laptop to the built-in wireless broadband gateway that's a standard feature of every residence in the planned community.

As insurance adjusters, both Leungs put in their fair share of time on LA freeways. But their bevy of high-tech tools and a fast Internet connection let them arrange their drive time and work hours around the needs of their young and growing family--allowing them to work before, during, or after usual business hours.

That flexibility is even more important to corporate attorney Lee Rawles, who makes an 80-mile round trip daily from his Playa Vista town house to his company's headquarters in Westlake Village. As a key employee, Lee's schedule is anything but nine-to-five; and with a workday dominated by face-to-face meetings, telecommuting is out of the question.

But a broadband link from his Playa Vista home to the company network lets him arrange his commute time and squeeze in dinners and movies with friends as well as outings to the nearby beach. His wireless network lets him read e-mail and contracts on his balcony, and his cell phone lets him make use of those dead hours on the freeway.

As we continue to evolve from an industrial to an information-based economy, new technologies are helping to build more flexibility into our work styles. For a growing number of knowledge workers, "the office" is a notebook or PDA plus a mobile phone. Research firm In-Stat/MDR estimates that more than 65 percent of us spend all or part of our workdays away from the office. For as many as 40 million people that means working from home, says Kneko Burney, the firm's chief market strategist.

The Future Is Finally Here

It seems like the home of the future has been on the drawing board just about forever, and occasional stories about the avante-garde residences of well-heeled technologists like Bill Gates serve only to remind us how long we've been waiting.

But that future is finally here for many of us, says Marc Lamb, national sales manager of CompUSA's Home Integration business. After years of talking, developers are building homes and communities of the future. They're laying down the infrastructure needed to collect all our high-tech gadgets into powerful networks that let us work anywhere, at any time.

"It's a 180-degree change," says Lamb. "We've seen communities in Florida that are starting (at about $90,000) with just structured wiring, all the way to million-dollar homes in Denver that have a more advanced infrastructure."

So far, several hundred apartment, town house, and single-family homeowners have moved into Playa Vista, which eventually will be home to about 13,500 residents--as well as businesses, in some 3.2 million square feet of commercial and retail space.

When completed, Playa Vista's 1100 acres will include restored wetlands and a couple dozen parks. It's not exactly Little House on the Prairie; but it's not your average neighborhood in urban sprawl, either.

"I definitely need some kind of nature and open space around me," Rawles says. "But I'm single and I'm not about to move to suburbia. I prefer the excitement and opportunities of a more urban lifestyle. I want the amenities of the city--but I want to see the sky, not just a canyon of buildings."

The key driving principal of the community's design is to use modern technologies to make for more pleasing environs, while enabling residents to be as productive--maybe even more productive--at home as they are at the office.

Built-In Technology

It starts a few feet underground, before any concrete is poured, says Derek Fraychineaud, Playa Vista's director of construction. Overseeing the planned community allowed him to install not only the usual telephone and TV cable under Playa Vista, but also two each of coaxial and Category 5 Ethernet cables as well as a fiber optic pair in a cable hybrid, which is commonly referred to as structured wiring.

Playa Vista is a quarter mile from a modern communications switching station and needs only a portion of its current cable capacity to deliver broadband Internet, PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), or IP-based voice and video services to all living, commercial, and retail areas. That also includes head-end points for extending wireless clouds of connectivity over recreational areas once access points can be weatherproofed.

All the necessary routers and switches are hidden in utility closets; from there, structured wiring travels through the walls alongside traditional electric, phone, and TV lines to multiple Ethernet outlets in every room. Ray Leung was happy to find that the Linksys Internet gateway in his home already had a slot for his 802.11 wireless network router.

Helping Hands

For less tech-savvy residents, CompUSA Inc. concierge Kevin Berg is on site when buyers choose their various appliances and fixtures. He shows residents how they can link up and secure all their computer and entertainment devices--whether they're wired or wirelessly connected PCs, voice-over IP phone services, or entertainment centers delivering audio and video throughout the home. Residents and businesses alike can add the cost of technology upgrades to mortgage or lease payments as they do for carpeting and lighting upgrades.

It's a new-home phenomenon, says Fraychineaud, because there's really no way to retrofit existing neighborhoods with the kind of bandwidth and technological headroom available to planned communities, much less hide the wires. Even after the significant expense of digging up streets and opening up walls, you're still limited by old telephone and cable switching equipment and copper wire. After shopping existing homes in the area, the Leungs concluded that to get the capabilities they needed they'd have to scrape an existing home off its lot and build from scratch.

However, it costs only a couple hundred dollars to add structured wiring during construction, says Fraychineaud. Rawles knew that; so before his home was built, he convinced the contractor to also add special audio wiring for hidden speakers and touch-screen control panels at strategic points throughout his home. It was so cheap that the contractor found it simpler just to add the wiring to all the units in Rawles' portion of the development.

Home lighting and heating control, and audio-visual enhancements, number among the most popular add-ons at Playa Vista, Berg reports. Lamb predicts that one day, when every light fixture and appliance in a home has an IP address, you'll control lighting and energy levels among your appliances from a computer, PDA, or touch panel.

High-Tech Toys

At the moment, Playa Vista residents can opt for Samsung's new Internet-enabled refrigerator, which comes equipped with a "Fridge Pad." The touch-screen panel wirelessly connects to a broadband or cable TV connection, letting you download your e-mail, watch TV, or control videocams and other fixtures from the kitchen. Playa Vista is also home to the national sales office of TMIO, which sells wall ovens that combine refrigeration and cooking in the same cavity. You can refrigerate prepared meals and start cooking them by accessing the oven from a mobile phone, PDA, or computer.

This year, says Berg, there's an explosion in demand for home entertainment equipment--Media Center PCs, plasma TVs, TiVo systems, and DVD players--that can be wirelessly assembled into a fairly powerful computing constellation. Microsoft recently got Federal Communications Commission approval for wireless broadband connections to its Xbox, and products like Buffalo Technology's AirStation 54-megabits-per-second Wireless Ethernet Converter already let you connect your Xbox, plasma TV, or just about any consumer electronics device with an Ethernet port to a 54-mbps wireless network.

Sony, which just released its VAIO RZ PC for use as a central server for networks of consumer electronics devices, is also working on a new processor that is designed to give even its PlayStation enough power to be the centerpiece for a whole house full of business and recreational gadgetry. D-Link Systems Inc.'s Storage Media Central Home Drive can provide rather sophisticated storage for such networks.

Environmentally Friendly

Playa Vista has drawn interest from businesses as well as individuals and families.

It's the type of community that attracts Information Age companies like video game giant Electronic Arts, which has begun consolidating its various west coast locations into a multiacre film and animation facility in Playa Vista's Water's Edge development. EA's Hollywood-style back lot will include sound and video studios, game-development facilities, screening rooms, and office space for more than 1000 designers, software engineers, and animators. They'll be interspersed with game rooms, a gym, a cafeteria, an athletic field, a beach, a volleyball court, and connections to hiking and biking trails to the ocean.

Employees who live in Playa Vista will be able to bike to work or perhaps commute in electric trams or cars. Playa Vista neighborhoods are served by GPS-equipped electric trams that connect to nearby Fox Hills Mall, and to LA's Green Line and other forms of mass transit. And residents can buy DaimlerChrysler Global Electric Motorcars for $6000 to $8000, depending on amenities.

The vision, says Fraychineaud, is for small groups of Playa Vista neighbors to chip in on communal GEMs that they reserve at the community Web site. That's also where they can check the availability of the electric trams. The same wireless key fobs and windshield transmitters used for community gates and garage doors can transmit user ID information or even assign per-trip charges for electric vehicles.

The electric trams and cars won't clean up LA's skies completely, but a little less smog couldn't hurt.

Paying the Price

Fraychineaud estimates that the typical Playa Vista homeowner spends $3000 to $5000 on technology upgrades, although Rawles and the Leungs invested considerably more in residential productivity.

"I definitely went overboard," says Rawles. "I think I added $14,000 in upgrades."

But having shopped alternatives in the area, Rawles found that he got a little more house for a little less money in Playa Vista. He also figures that he could have spent $25,000 to $30,000 on high-tech upgrades and still not have achieved the setup he has at Playa Vista, or its growth potential.

Rawles lives amid a whole pantheon of consumer electronics devices, from TiVo to Xbox. The entertainment center in his kitchen has a TV receiver, DVD player, and flat-panel display that flips down from under a cabinet so he can watch TV or movies, or, more likely, read e-mail and visit news sites while he prepares meals.

"I don't get to watch TV when programs are scheduled, so I'm a huge TiVo fanatic," he adds. "I'm very much into time-shifting."

The Leungs also have time constraints; that's why they chose careers, companies, and working schedules that let them accommodate the needs of their family. Not every employer sees the advantages of having a self-motivated employee willing to pay for his own office space, utilities, and equipment, says Ray Leung, but he looked until he found one who is flexible.

The Playa Vista lifestyle isn't going to be everyone's choice. But as both Rawles and the Leungs point out, the technology underlying it offers plenty of options, and can help us squeeze a little living out of the few free hours we've got.

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