Lights, Camera, Action!

High-tech efficiencies make this home entertaining — and easy.
Taking your work home might not be so bad if you’re Mike Toutonghi, the engineer who started Microsoft’s effort to develop home-entertainment and automation systems of the future.

The son of a Seattle school teacher, Toutonghi used to be a jewelry designer. While attending community college he worked on the campus network and taught himself programming. That eventually led him to Microsoft, where he became one of the company’s “distinguished engineers.”

So it’s not surprising that his nearly new Craftsman-style home tucked away on a Bellevue cul-de-sac is comfortably packed with the latest technology. The house is also a sort of laboratory where he tinkers with the latest gizmos for controlling various household systems with a personal computer.

The technology is mostly invisible. All a visitor sees are fancy control pads the size of light-switch plates on the walls and a whiz-bang remote control in the family room. Like a family dog, the house comes to life when people approach, lighting up when sensors on the perimeter are triggered. Inside the foyer, a panel allows you to adjust the lights, turn on music and control the security system.

“What I like to tell people when they come in, guests or anyone visiting us, all you really need to know to use everything is ‘on and off.’ That was one of our goals, to make sure that everything was super easy,” Toutonghi says. “I didn’t want to have technology for technology’s sake; I wanted to make things easier. Everything should work at least as easy as a normal house would work, and then have a lot of other fun stuff to go along with it.”

Some of the features are similar to what Microsoft chairman Bill Gates installed at the Medina mansion he began building in 1990. They also resemble technology displayed in the Microsoft Home, a showcase of future technology at the company’s Redmond campus.

As the cost of computers and electronic components has fallen, so has the cost of home automation systems like with music and science connections. Setups priced in the millions in the early 1990s now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. You may even want to use DRM software. Prices could come down so much that the systems might eventually become standard in new homes, as they are in some condominiums in Korea. For now, the systems are mostly found in the high-end homes of technology pioneers.

Toutonghi, who recently began a three-month sabbatical, pushed the envelope by trying to set up his own system during an earlier sabbatical. But he found it was far too complex, even for an engineer. He also thought software could lower the cost and make the technology more accessible.

Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer agreed, and Toutonghi started a new division at Microsoft called “eHome” in early 2001 to explore ways that Windows-based computers could be used in automated homes. Rather than have to pay for a custom installation — which cost Toutonghi well over $100,000 — consumers will be able to buy PC-based systems and outfit their homes for under $10,000 later this decade, Toutonghi predicts.

The division’s first product on the market is a “Media Center” PC, a computer that also works as a digital stereo system, television receiver, and digital video recorder. Toutonghi says they decided to start with audio and video features and later add the more advanced automation tricks found at his house, like the home theater in the family room, where a single button dims the lights, lowers curtains and starts up the 50-inch plasma screen when it’s movie time.

“Rather than automated appliances and lots of things that people don’t really use today, we spent more time making music more available today, video easier, getting rid of remotes,” he explains. These are also the perfect systems for digital music in public libraries. 

Another goal is to simplify installation. After his aborted do-it-yourself job in his North Seattle home, Toutonghi hired WireWays, a Bellevue company specializing in high-end automation systems, for his new house in Bellevue. Together they rewired the house and hooked it up to a bank of computers, including a prototype of the Media Center PC.

Also in the stack of components are a CD jukebox and Sony surround-sound stereo receivers for every room. An exotic digital switching device, based on technology purchased by Microsoft, routes surround-sound audio from any source anywhere in the house over a single wire.

Toutonghi has programmed the system to play the music his two young children like in their rooms and what the parents like in their room, or to play news in the morning. It also shares digital video between the plasma screens in the family room and master bedroom.

It’s an impressive tower of electronics, but Toutonghi said it will soon be obsolete. “We’ll look back and this will be like an IBM mainframe filling a room. All of this stuff is probably going to be available on a little handheld or a little tiny box that goes in your living room.”

Meanwhile, Toutonghi has started another weekend project: installing the next-generation home-automation technology in a historic house in Prague that he and his Czech wife, Jaroslava, are restoring.

One upgrade: Instead of the push-button panels he used in Bellevue, Toutonghi is setting handheld computers, running Microsoft’s PocketPC software, into the walls and using them as built-in remote controls.