TOKYO (Reuters) - Imagine getting home from work to be greeted by the family robot, which recognizes your voice and reminds you that you've forgotten your spouse's birthday before alerting you that the hospital has just called.
You go to the study and use a touch panel to activate your video messages on a display that takes up half the wall. A doctor appears: "I've been monitoring your urine on the Internet. You're too fat, your sugar level is high and you drink too much beer."
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This may sound like a scene from "The Jetsons," the popular science-fiction cartoon from the 1960s that provided a glimpse of what the home and society could look like in 2062, but your home might look more like the Jetsons' in just a matter of years.
Japanese corporations, from toilet maker Toto to electronics makers like Matsushita, are pouring millions into developing products for this home of the future where every appliance is connected to a network, accessible from anywhere at anytime.
"Since the amount of information available will grow tremendously, much will depend on the ability to search intelligently," said Tetsuji Miyano, head of the new business planning office at Matsushita Electric Works (MEW)
"But I think we will see human lives improve in terms of saving time and travel costs" in step with the networking of the home.
MEW is a building materials subsidiary of Matsushita Electric Industrial, maker of Panasonic branded electronics.
While a house full of networked gadgets raises sticky issues such as how to protect private information, the future home will no doubt be kinder to the elderly and disabled, easier on the environment and more connected to the outside.
Matsushita Electric Industrial's vision of the home beyond 2010, on display at its Tokyo showroom, comes complete with a talking robot, a study that looks more like a spaceship cockpit and an iris scanner at the front door.
Naturally, the dining room is high-tech as well. It features a kitchen table with a touch-screen surface that displays images beamed from a projector below. A wide-screen display and vibrating glass speakers are on the adjacent wall.
Sit down for dinner and a jellyfish known as an "agent" swims your way. Each family member has his or her own "agent," which contains personal information and can be commanded with a simple device to download text or images from the Web.
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A family might plan a trip together at the table with each member using the Internet to explain where he or she wants to go.
As Matsushita sees it, communication in the future home will be more interactive and computers will be more intuitive -- operated mainly by touch, voice or simple one-button commands.
"The agent knows each family members' hobbies and tastes...and you don't have to use the PC directly," said Nao Kurosawa, a guide at Matsushita's Panasonic Center where the showroom is housed.
"Many elderly and children aren't that comfortable using the (keyboard-operated) PC," she said.
High-tech toilets, privacy concerns
But with consumers unlikely to shell out the extra money for such products and with issues such as the availability of sufficient bandwith not yet resolved, a fully networked house as envisioned by Matsushita is still several years down the road.
For now, the Osaka-based company is testing a service called "Kurashi Net" on a limited basis in the Kansai region in western Japan.
The service allows consumers to control appliances like air-conditioners or microwaves through a central control pad or mobile phone. This means you can switch on your air-conditioner to cool your house before you arrive or use your cell phone to get the oven going for dinner as you drive home from work.
Kurashi Net (kurashi means 'home life' in Japanese) also offers a sensor-based security service that notifies the homeowner's cell phone when a specified window or door is ajar.
But perhaps some of the most interesting work being done by Japanese corporations is in the bathroom, an area in many Japanese homes that is already awash in high-tech gadgetry.
While toilets in Western countries tend to have one basic function: flush, a Japanese toilet might come equipped with a heated seat, a flush sensor and a remote-controlled bidet.
Toto already sells a toilet that tests a person's urine for sugar, useful in treating diabetes and generally monitoring a person's health. Japan's largest toilet maker is working on a networked version of the machine.
"We are doing joint research with a communications firm on how best to gather and store data (from the toilet) and send it safely to the doctor," said Kaoru Nogami, general manager of Toto's restroom product research and development.
At the earliest, Nogami said it would take three years to produce this product. He said that today's version of the Internet was probably not reliable and that one of the main hurdles would be making sure that the network was secure.
Indeed, protecting the private information of consumers will be a major legal issue for manufacturers like Toto and electronics firms looking to outfit the future networked home.
Critics say companies should be doing more to address this concern.
"They talk about how convenient it will be, but they haven't explained to the public about the risks involved or what measures they have made," said Tsutomu Shimizu, a Tokyo-based lawyer.
"Electronics makers will probably be the first party to become the target of a lawsuit if something goes wrong."