Touring Bill Gates' Techno-House -- Bill Gates Is Creating A Home Where Technological Wizardry Will Be An Unobtrusive Servant

This is the second of three exclusive excerpts from "The Road Ahead," the new book by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

One of the many fears expressed about the information highway is that it will reduce the time people spend socializing. Some worry that homes will become such cozy entertainment providers that we'll never leave them, and that, safe in our private sanctuaries, we'll become isolated. I don't think that's going to happen. . . .

I began thinking about building a new house in the late 1980s. I wanted craftsmanship but nothing ostentatious. I wanted a house that would accommodate sophisticated, changing technology, but in an unobtrusive way that made it clear that technology was the servant, not the master. I didn't want the house to be defined by its use of technology.

Originally the house was designed as a bachelor pad, but when Melinda and I got married we changed the plan to make it more suitable for a family. For instance, the kitchen was improved so it could better accommodate a family. However, the appliances have no more advanced technology than you'd find in any other well-appointed kitchen. Melinda also pointed out and corrected the fact that I had a great study but there was no place designated for her to work.

I found some property on the shore of Lake Washington within easy commuting distance of Microsoft. In 1990, work on a guest cottage began. Then, in 1992, we began excavating and laying the foundation for the main residence. This was a big job, requiring a lot of concrete, because Seattle is an earthquake zone at least as perilous as California.

Living space and more

Living space will be about average for a large house. The family living room will be about 14 by 28 feet, including an area for watching television or listening to music. And there will be cozy spaces for one or two people, although there will also be a reception hall to entertain one hundred comfortably for dinner. I enjoy having get-togethers for new Microsoft employees and summer hires. The house will also have a small movie theater, a pool, and a trampoline room. A sport court will sit amid some trees near the water's edge, behind a dock for water-skiing, one of my favorite sports. A small estuary, to be fed with groundwater from the hill behind the house, is planned. We'll seed the estuary with sea-run cutthroat trout, and I'm told to expect river otters.

If you come to visit, you'll drive down a gently winding driveway that approaches the house through an emergent forest of maple and alder, punctuated with Douglas fir. . . .

When you stop your car in the semicircular turnaround, although you will be at the front door, you won't see much of the house. That's because you'll be entering onto the top floor. First thing, as you come in, you'll be presented with an electronic pin to clip to your clothes. This pin will connect you to the electronic services of the house. Next, you will descend either by elevator or down a staircase that runs straight toward the water under a sloping glass ceiling supported by posts of Douglas fir. The house has lots of exposed horizontal beams and vertical supports. You'll have a great view of the lake. My hope is that the view and the Douglas fir, rather than the electronic pin, will be what interest you most as you descend toward the ground floor. . . .

The fir beams support the two floors of private living spaces you'll be descending past. Privacy is important. I want a house that will still feel like home even when guests are enjoying other parts of it.

Anticipating your needs

At the bottom of the stairs, the theater will be on the right, and to the left, on the south side, will be the reception hall. As you step into the reception hall, on your right will be a series of sliding glass doors that open onto a terrace leading to the lake. Recessed into the east wall will be 24 video monitors, each with a 40-inch picture tube, stacked four high and six across. These monitors will work cooperatively to display large images for artistic, entertainment, or business purposes. I had hoped that when the monitors weren't in use they could literally disappear into the woodwork. I wanted the screens to display wood grain patterns that matched their surroundings. Unfortunately I could never achieve anything convincing with current technology, because a monitor emits light while real wood reflects it. So I settled for having the monitors disappear behind wood panels when they're not in use.

The electronic pin you wear will tell the house who and where you are, and the house will use this information to try to meet and even anticipate your needs - all as unobtrusively as possible. Someday, instead of needing the pin, it might be possible to have a camera system with visual-recognition capabilities, but that's beyond current technology. When it's dark outside, the pin will cause a moving zone of light to accompany you through the house. Unoccupied rooms will be unlit. As you walk down a hallway, you might not notice the lights ahead of you gradually coming up to full brightness and the lights behind you fading. Music will move with you, too. It will seem to be everywhere, although, in fact, other people in the house will be hearing entirely different music or nothing at all. A movie or the news will be able to follow you around the house, too. If you get a phone call, only the handset nearest you will ring.

You won't be confronted by the technology, but it will be readily and easily available. Handheld remote controls will put you in charge of your immediate environment and of the house's entertainment system. The remote will extend the capabilities of the pin. It will not only let the house identify and locate you, it will also allow you to give instructions. You'll use the controls to tell the monitors in a room to become visible and what to display. You'll be able to choose from among thousands of pictures, recordings, movies, and television programs, and you'll have all sorts of options available . . .

If you're planning to visit Hong Kong soon, you might ask the screen in your room to show you pictures of the city. It will seem to you as if the photographs are displayed everywhere, although actually the images will materialize on the walls of rooms just before you walk in and vanish after you leave. If you and I are enjoying different things and one of us walks into a room where the other is sitting, the house will follow predetermined rules about what to do. For example, the house might continue the audio and visual imagery for the person who was in the room first, or it might change programming to something it knows both of us like. . . . House with memory

If you regularly ask for light to be unusually bright or dim, the house will assume that's how you want it most of the time. In fact, the house will remember everything it learns about your preferences. If in the past you've asked to see paintings by Henri Matisse or photographs by Chris Johns of "National Geographic," you may find other works of theirs displayed on the walls of rooms you enter. If you listened to Mozart horn concertos the last time you visited, you might find them on again when you come back. If you don't take telephone calls during dinner, the phone won't ring if the call is for you. We'll also be able to "tell" the house what a guest likes. Paul Allen is a Jimi Hendrix fan and a head-banging guitar lick will greet him whenever he visits. . . .

I will be the first home user for one of the most unusual electronic features in my house. The product is a database of more than a million still images, including photographs and reproductions of paintings. If you're a guest, you'll be able to call up portraits of presidents, pictures of sunsets, airplanes, skiing in the Andes, a rare French stamp, the Beatles in 1965, or reproductions of High Renaissance paintings, on screens throughout the house.

A few years ago I started a small company, now called Corbis, in order to build a unique and comprehensive digital archive of images of all types. . . . These digital images will be available to commercial users such as magazine and book publishers as well as to individual browsers. Royalties are paid to the image owners. Corbis is working with museums and libraries, as well as a large number of individual photographers, agencies, and other archives.

I believe quality images will be in great demand on the highway. This vision that the public will find image-browsing worthwhile is obviously totally unproven. . . . I think the right interface will make it appealing to a lot of people.

A decade from now, access to the millions of images and all the other entertainment opportunities I've described will be available in many homes and will certainly be more impressive than those I'll have when I move into my house in late 1996. My house will just be getting some of the services a little sooner.

I enjoy experimenting, and I know some of my concepts for the house will work out better than others. Maybe I'll decide to conceal the monitors behind conventional wall art or throw the electronic pins into the trash. Or maybe I'll grow accustomed to the systems in the house, or even fond of them, and wonder how I got along without them. That's my hope.

Tomorrow: How technology will change the way we work and where we live.

From "The Road Ahead," by Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson. Copyright 1995 by William H. Gates III. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.