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Redefining house: An architect's interactive vision

By Kevin Voigt
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- When James Law wakes up in his Hong Kong apartment, the scene that greets him is not the ring of smog that often blankets the city, but a 15-meter wide panoramic view of a Thai beach, streamed in real time from a friend's beachfront home and projected to the walls of his apartment.

He selects what music he wants to hear by voice command; when he gets an e-mail, the color of his walls changes to a red. "When I get a phone call from my girlfriend it turns purple," said the 35-year-old architect and designer, who recently watched five games simultaneously on the walls of his home during the 2006 World Cup.

His furniture uses animatronics technology that can shape-shift from a bed into a couch "like a Transformer" says Law, referring to the popular line of Japanese toys in the 1980s which could change from vehicles into robots.

"I'm asking questions that can really shake up people's minds," says the chairman of James Law Cybertecture International, a Hong Kong design firm that marries architecture with interactive technology. "Why is a wall a wall? Why is a door a door? Why do buildings have to be static objects?"

If this all sounds like something out of science fiction, you're close to correct: Law's futuristic apartment was in part inspired by conversations he had with Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey" and other sci-fi classics.

The British-educated architect cut his teeth designing stores and commercial buildings in Asia that integrate technology. One example are the retail shops for telecommunications firm PCCW here in Hong Kong that tracks customer movements through their stores, revealing which displays most attracted their attention.

Law has incorporated interactive design to department stores, theaters and commercial buildings. But for the first time his chameleon-like computerized apartment will be the model for rooms in a planned residential complex in Dubai.

Move over iPod, Here comes 'iPad'

Law is designing the 'iPad,' a 24-story apartment complex with 280 units planned to open in 2008. The developer, Omniyat Properties -- which plans to announce the project at Cityscape, a property investment show this week in Dubai -- confirmed plans to build the high-tech apartment complex but remains hush-hush on the details. Law says iPad will incorporate elements he developed for his high-tech home.

" Why is a wall a wall? Why is a door a door? Why do buildings have to be static objects?" - James Law

On voice command, Law's open plan L-shaped apartment can be divided into as many as three rooms, with automated panels that slide into place, and beds that can transform into tables. A flat-screen TV, hung on a pole in the middle of the room, uses an infrared senor to follow the viewer anywhere around the apartment.

"The idea is to create a negative space that can fully move automatically into place ... even recognize (by voice) different room designs for different people," says Law. "No need for door locks, because the apartment recognizes who is at the door."

Law worked as an architect for firms in Japan, the United States and Hong Kong before starting his own company in 2001. With 10 full-time employees and 30 part-time professionals on retainer, his company took in $50 million last year and -- buttressed by the iPad contract -- expects $100 million in revenue next year, he says.

Three news sets of technology are revolutionizing architectural and interior design possibilities, Law says:

  • "Immersion technology" allows whole walls to be become view screens.
  • Sensor technology -- with the ability to detect individuals through voice or facial recognition software -- allows home spaces "to become much more individualized," he says.
  • "Next is the advancement of material sciences, where you can create plastic and polymers that can take the same force as steel but only have a 10th of the weight."
  • Law, who served as consultant for the futuristic scenes of Wong Kar Wai's movie, "2046," says his work has been inspired by Arthur C. Clarke. The pair met four years ago in Sri Lanka to discuss using interactive technology to preserve UNESCO cultural heritage sites.

    "I'm an amazing fan of his work ... it's interesting to see the things he's predicted in his books that have come to pass," such as geo-synchronistic satellites crisscrossing the globe, he says. "We talked a great deal about possibilities of `cybertecture' and said to me, `go out and make it happen'."

    In the future, Law foresees apartments as "portable objects," with the memory of your apartment layout carried with you on flash memory pen drives.

    "Automatically, the apartment switches to your favorite lighting, favorite music, favorite room design," he says. "We will no longer buy the 'house' ... the characteristics of the house follows us."

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    James Law's idea is to make living space a more fluid idea.


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