On-line homes where our children will live

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The Independent Online
The modern living room contains more computing power than was used to land Neil Armstrong on the Moon in 1969. There are microchips in the TV set, the video recorder, the personal computer, the compact disc player in the hi-fi, and the telephone with its memory full of numbers.

But unlike the Apollo 11 mission, there is no co-ordination. The PC will not connect to the hi-fi; the satellite decoder only works in one room. The system is inflexible.

However, by 2015, when today's infants are buying their first homes, they will demand a domain that is far more "wired" and integrated than that of their parents. Dr Peter Cochrane, head of British Telecom's research and development division, contrasts it thus: "Today you have a TV and a PC and a phone and a video recorder and a camcorder. In 10 years they will all come together in the same box. Trying to buy ''just'' a PC will be like trying to buy a black-and-white TV today. You won't bother." This is already happening: Apple Computer sells a combined PC and TV, and many PC owners find that their CD-Rom drive intended for reading data disks is ideal for playing music CDs.

Rupert Murdoch's tie-up with MCI, to deliver entertainment and other services in digital form through telephone lines, will add extra momentum to this change. Digital information can be copied and transmitted down a fibre-optic cable virtually instantaneously, and far more cheaply, than through media such as satellites. In future, a single computer called the "set-top box", as powerful as today's supercomputers yet as cheap as a PC, will co-ordinate the torrent of data flowing in and out of the home. This will include home shopping (for items such as takeaway foods), "video-on-demand" (which can squirt a two-hour film over a phone line in a few minutes), a few hundred TV channels, videophone conversations, a hi-fi player able to draw on a library of music that might be stored on the other side of the globe, and personal interactive services like those now offered by companies such as Compu- Serve or Delphi - itself owned by Murdoch.

And instead of today's mixture of access routes - TV aerial, satellite dish, phone line, floppy disk, CD and CD-Rom - in future the phone line, will suffice. The set-top box will route data to devices in different rooms as required. While the children of the house play video games over the phone with friends from a different city, the father can order a video in the kitchen while cooking a meal using a recipe from a restaurant in India. The mother, meanwhile, can make a videophone call to friends.

None of this requires a radical leap in technology: all the components are commercially available today. The only obstacle is price, which will fall as the technology improves. Murdoch may have developed the "killer application" for the future by tying together the access to information, entertainment and computers in one, easily-chosen bundle.