AT THE FOOT of my bed is a low wooden cabinet that conceals a flat, 40-inch screen.
Touch a button and the screen rises out of the cabinet so that my wife and I can watch a movie or the news or browse through family photos. Touch another button and the screen retracts unobtrusively.At least, that is what's supposed to happen.
But one night, not long after I'd moved into my computerized house, the screen wouldn't retract when it was time to go to sleep. It wouldn't turn off, either. It glowed brightly in the dark, right above my feet.
I could have bothered somebody to come and fix it but I did the simple thing instead. I threw a blanket over the big monitor, covered my eyes with a mask, and went to sleep.
The next morning somebody solved the problem. The retracting monitor works fine now. I don't think about it much anymore. I just use it.
The era of home automation is about to arrive, starting with "data connectivity" - the sharing of information among tools of various kinds. Home-automation technology is coming of age and the public is receptive.
Homebuilders in some communities are finding strong demand for houses and apartments that have built-in computer networks or facilities for connecting to the Internet.
Our homes are already filled with technology that we use without a second thought. The toaster, the light switch and the remote-controlled television are commonplace. So are the microwave oven and the garage-door opener.
Home technology that contributes to an enjoyable lifestyle is warmly welcomed, though not always at first. In the past, new technologies have sometimes taken a surprisingly long time to be incorporated into homes. Architecture and lifestyles had to adapt.
The toilet is an example. The "water closet" was invented in 1596 by an English poet, and refined and patented in 1778 by an English engineer. But it wasn't until about 100 years ago that the flush toilet came into wide use in Europe and North America.
The devices were installed in broom closets, and then in small rooms - bathrooms. Recently there has been a trend toward large bathrooms, in recognition that people spend a fair amount of time in them.
Television followed a similar pattern. Almost 50 years ago, TVs began appearing in living rooms and eventually bedrooms. Now many homes have more televisions than they do people. One new trend in larger homes is toward "media rooms" specifically built for television and movie viewing.
A future trend may be toward homes that have substantial offices, possibly apart from the rest of the living area. With more people telecommuting or working for themselves, it makes sense that homes will reflect the need for ample workspaces and amenities.
The pace at which innovations are being incorporated into our homes and lives is increasing. In the reasonably near future, PC-based networks will enable us to control many aspects of our homes with devices that cost no more than $100 each.
We'll be able to control our entertainment systems in simple but elegant ways, use any TV in the house to monitor inexpensive outdoor surveillance cameras and connect to the Internet from multiple locations. Some of these tasks won't require a PC, but in the end it will make sense to have a computer to quietly orchestrate the operations of the systems in a house.
Many "futuristic" devices are available already. I know somebody building a house who has a video camera hooked to the Internet so that he can look in on the job site from any Web browser anywhere. He can go back and review what happened over the course of a day, or verify that a subcontractor was on the job as many days as he said he was. The contractors know about the camera, so there isn't a privacy issue.
Some daycare centers apparently offer similar cameras hooked to the Internet, so that working parents can look in on their small children. Of course, these cameras are password-protected.
To be easy to install and use, much home-automation technology will be wireless or send signals on existing wires, including in-home electrical, telephone and coaxial cable. Control and other data signals can travel over existing wiring without interfering with the existing services, such as telephones, cable TV and electricity.
If you're building or remodeling a house, you have the luxury of installing special wiring or even designing floor plans to reflect your vision of the future.
One person I know is designing a house that will have small areas set aside so that family members can someday communicate via video without showing too much of their surroundings. Just as people today go into a quiet room to talk on the phone, he believes that tomorrow people using a video camera may want to retreat to spaces that don't reveal too much. "Why show the world your dirty dishes?" he asks.
He may be looking a little too far down the road. It's hard to anticipate when video-conferenc-ing will arrive or how it will affect architecture, if at all.
The important thing when remodeling or building a house is to provide for future flexibility by including inexpensive wiring while the walls are open.
The easiest and probably most cost-effective approach is to run "structured wiring" to every room. Structured wiring bundles together a variety of conductors, including telephone and fiber-optic lines, into a single cable that's about an inch in diameter and costs as little as $1 a foot in the United States.
Run a line of this cable from a central "wiring closet" (such as an enclosed space under a stairway) to each room of the house where you can imagine someday wanting communications, entertainment or home-control capabilities.
Ideally, each room should have its own cable leading back to the wiring closet, rather than being one stop on a cable from room to room. Inside the wiring closet, the wires should terminate neatly in a cabinet.
For now, terminate the other ends of the cables behind a blank wall plate in each room. If you're not sure where in a room you'll want the cables, you can run a single cable to more than one location in the room and decide later which location you'll activate.
"Structured wiring" prepares you for the future, even if you can't see it clearly.
It's hard to tell which technologies will catch on and improve lifestyles. The retractable bedside TV-computer screen may be a big winner. Or maybe not.