A Swiss family has taken up residence in one of Europe's first "houses of the future" to find out what life will be like when technology takes hold in the home.
Imagine having an oven that downloads recipes, a refrigerator that orders your food, a guest book that posts your photo on the Internet.
The Steiner family- Ursi, Daniel, and their two children, Carlo and Grace - is getting a taste of high-tech life, after moving into the "Haus der Zukunft" in sleepy Hünenberg, just outside Zug, less than a month ago.
"We weren't at all worried about the impact living in such a strange home would have on the children," says Daniel. He pauses to adjust the curtains, using the same palm-held web pad that also orders groceries over the Internet and checks whether the washing machine downstairs is working properly.
He adds: "It's good for the kids to grow up with tools of the future, and live with them on a daily basis. In a few years' time they will be completely at home with them."
Daniel and Ursi gave up their family home in canton Schwyz - and their respective jobs - to join the "FuturElife" project. They receive a salary to live in the house, and their duties include testing the multiple gadgets and keeping them constantly up-to-date.
"Through this liquid crystal control panel next to the oven, for instance, I can order a can of tomatoes," says Daniel. He holds up a can, and the scanner registers its barcode, with a beep of approval. "I simply tell the machine how many more I want to order."
The panel, like the computers upstairs in the study, is linked to the Internet and to a significant number of television channels. It also allows one to view what's going on in all the rooms of the house, thanks to web cams that also relay images to the project's website.
The presence of cameras conjures up notions of "Big Brother" - whether the TV show or the Orwell novel - but the house of the future is not quite the same. The family's private quarters, in a house adjacent to the futuristic one, are out of range of the cameras, so some privacy is guaranteed.
The aim is for the family to use the high-tech house as much as possible, but their actual living quarters are next door. There, they can live a rather more normal life among their own belongings.
There are about 50 high-tech items in the house of the future. They give it the futuristic touch, but most are not immediately visible.
In fact, the house looks rather nondescript; a passer-by would never guess that Daniel never mows the lawn (thanks to a programmable mower), or that the shower adjusts the water temperature automatically.
"In the 'Douche Temple' that we have installed," he explains, "you can tell the shower how hot or cold you want different parts of your body to be. Let's say you like having cold water spraying your feet, but want the water that hits your chest to be far warmer - you can programme the 'Temple' accordingly."
FuturElife is the brainchild of the German billionaire, Otto Beisheim. His foundation invested some SFr3.5 million to set up the project, working with the American high-tech group, Cisco Systems, and the Swiss company, MaMa Technologies.
The aim is showcase new developments and determine their practicality. A tour of the house reveals that some gadgets still need some fine-tuning; the TV which was supposed to drop magically from the ceiling got stuck before it had even begun its descent.
The project is also intended to show people the kind of life they might be living in the coming years. Thus, the Steiners' home is open to visitors, and can be accessed on the Internet.
"It's a bit of an adventure," says Daniel, "and it definitely extends your knowledge."
by Juliet Linley