By Georgina Prodhan and Rajiv Sekhri
The two-story pre-fabricated house dwarfed by Communist-era buildings in the center of Berlin looks as though it belongs in the suburb of a small town but it is actually Deutsche Telekom's vision of a high-tech future.
From the moment you cross the threshold of the T-Com house, everything is theoretically at your fingertips.
"The idea is to not go out at all," said house manager Anne-Kathrin Berends. "You can do everything inside."
Surrounded by flags and lit up by Deutsche Telekom's signature magenta-colored lights, the house is a very public walk-in laboratory where a lucky few can test out the company's latest gadgets and get a glimpse of a supposedly fuss-free future.
The central concept is a system of plasma screens that dominate every room, serving up entertainment and information linked by an Internet IP system to handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants) via wireless local area network (WLAN).
"Anyone can see straight away just how simply and conveniently our communications solutions integrate every aspect of modern day life," said Achim Berg, a member of the management board at T-Com, Telekom's fixed-line and broadband unit.
A favorite feature is the mood lighting: Feel like a party? Change the room's color scheme to vibrant reds and oranges. Want to de-stress? Go for soothing blue with calm music.
There can be problems -- during a recent visit, screens froze as competing PDAs vied for their control -- but T-Com house still has a lot to offer couch potatoes.
TAKING IT EASY IN T-COM HOUSE
Real-time or face-to-face communication is no longer necessary -- instead there is a multi-media whiteboard by the door where you can swap e-mails, pictures or text messages with housemates.
If you don't feel like entertaining visitors, let them leave a video recording at the front door and relax while a robot vacuum cleaner trundles around the floors and a torso-shaped shirt press blow-dries your work clothes to perfection.
And don't worry about the children misbehaving -- a Webcam will keep an eye on them. Just don't let them get their hands on a PDA or you might find alarms going off, blinds going up and down and television programs abruptly interrupted.
If you feel like a spot of exercise or fancy a look around Germany's capital city, step onto the running machine and let a plasma screen take you on a virtual tour of Berlin.
The T-Com house was built by WeberHaus, which makes pre-fabricated homes for thousands of Germans, and inventors hope it will soon become a reality for what they call average German families.
Mail-order company Neckermann provided the furnishings and engineering firm Siemens supplied appliances and house automation.
"It's a prototype," said Berends, adding that the gadgets being tested are expected to be ready for the market in 15 to 18 months. "We want to find out what normal German people think about this kind of technology."
So far, she says, the mood lighting has been the biggest hit with some20 groups who beat tens of thousands of online contestants to spend a long weekend in the house, which opened on March 1.
The lighting system, however, is not for sale. In fact, the only item which Deutsche Telekom has definite plans to bring to market is the whiteboard message center, which should be available for under 500 euros within 18 months.
Siemens already supplies other house-automation systems that remotely control security, temperature or kitchen appliances.
Most of these are not installed in the T-Com house for fear of accidents or of frightening guests -- who have ranged from young families to groups of elderly friends to the Bayern Munich soccer team -- with too much technology.
An intelligent fridge, which scans for missing products and compiles shopping lists, stands in an exhibition at the Communications Museum nearby but is not featured in the house.
"Germany is not really the market for that. Maybe in 20 years or something, but not yet," said Berends.
Perhaps tellingly, only one visitor so far has actually expressed interest in buying the whole house with its contents -- and he was Italian.
Copyright 2005 Reuters Limited.
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