Wherein a program coded to control sights, sounds, and smells bombs at the office

It has been a hard week, and Susan and I are chilling by the pool. Actually neither of us has a swimming pool, so we're having drinks in front of Susan's computer, on which I've just called up a screen saver that shows a moving image of water in a pool.

Actually Susan and I barely know each other, but we have been pretending to have an affair so that we won't get restructured. "They'll be too intrigued about whether we're an item even to think about letting us go," explains Susan. She's probably right. In today's business environment, everyone has to have entertainment value.

"Well, Sugarlamb," I say with a contented sigh, "this is about as virtual as it gets."

Susan and I are nervous about our jobs because the project we've been working on just got canceled. We weren't surprised because it was something way off what our company usually does. We were marketing software -- our company had never sold software before -- so the powers-that-be devised a pretentious code name for the product. Microsoft had used the code name "Chicago" for Windows 95, so we used the code name "Buffalo" for our thing. I guess the connection was Rustbelt metropolises, but I kept thinking about bison -- short-horned ruminant animals on the brink of extinction. We had a lot of in-house names for Buffalo as well. "Smell-o-Vision" is one I can print here.

Buffalo was supposed to be an extension of the special computer system Bill Gates is installing in his $30-million to $40-million mansion. The Gates's home computer will be programmed to control every system in every room, from heat and lights to music and TV. It's rumored that residents and guests will wear electronic identification so the computer will know where they are and program the rooms accordingly; artificial intelligence will fine-tune the system to suit the regulars.

Somehow our company developed the illusion that it could take this little hobbyhorse away from Bill Gates and let it loose on a whole new market -- perhaps businesses looking to establish room-by-room control of the corporate environment. Like Gates's guests, employees would be outfitted with microchips that tip the system off to their personal preferences in screen savers, lighting, music, and the like. We hoped, of course, to establish market leadership for Buffalo before Microsoft even noticed. Besides the element of surprise, we had one other big advantage over Microsoft: Gates's mansion was still under construction, but the prototype of Smell-o-Vision was up and running right in our office.

As the CEO put it: "To really sell those systems, we all have to be living personally in this ultimately networked world where the office becomes an extension of ourselves."

I met Susan on the marketing task force for Smell-o-Vision, and it was not an obvious virtual match. I would step out of my cubicle (Simpsons screen saver, Tommy as ambient sound, yellowish lighting, phone ringer set to "high siren," aromatic hints of popcorn and coffee) and go over to Susan's, where my microchip would send totally opposing signals to her default setup (Manet screen saver, Mozart, natural light, muted phone, scent of cinnamon-orange spice). The primitive Buffalo program had only one option when atmospherics clashed: it clicked into "meeting mode," a neutral, blue-gray-elevator-music kind of environment. It brought to mind the office before the prototype was installed, only without the personal touches people had applied with air fresheners and boom boxes.

In this featureless setting, Susan and I set out to find the optimum market sector for Smell-o-Vision -- the types of establishments begging to have their environment computer-keyed to individuals. We studied the reports market research had compiled from surveys of companies with revenues of $1.5 million-plus. They indicated that most respondents feared a loss of privacy. Gee, here you could be wearing an identifying microchip that would feed all your likes and dislikes into a central computer, with AI software that tracks the music, TV, Web sites, and computer applications you actually use, minute by minute, and people take that as a loss of privacy. Go figure.

Whom to turn to? Perhaps people whose privacy was not an issue to start with, say, prisoners or politicians. Susan and I figured we would start with the Big House. It had some money to spend and was a perfect setting for controlled experiments. We put together a focus group -- not your sadistic gestapo types, but modern, educated, progressive criminologists, thoughtful prison administrators whom we knew could see past the control aspect to the ways Buffalo could raise prisoners' self-esteem and improve their sense of themselves.

They loved Smell-o-Vision. "With this, we could really control those rockheads" was one comment. "Could you wire in electric shocks?" was an important question for product development. Then there was the hardware issue: "How can we surgically implant the chip so they don't know we're doing it?" The system defaults, on the other hand, would be a snap: "Just give us cement-gray everything, deafening metallic clanks, and foul odors, and set all the machines in occupational therapy not to work."

They could see that Susan and I were disappointed. "I know you imagined the prisoners customizing their environments," empathized one penologist. "But you see, our more stable population is conditioned from previous sentences. They identify the classic prison environment with security and status. They like it the way it is."

"Or they wouldn't keep coming back now, would they?" remarked another.

We would have gone ahead with the program anyway, but the economics were hard to justify. You see, virtual space travel, for one, is a lot cheaper than a real launch. But with virtual concrete, the numbers are reversed: virtual concrete is made out of video monitors and disk storage, whereas real concrete is made out of sand, water, and cement.

So despite the privacy issue, we decided to revert to our original idea: the computer-controlled office environment. The software developers updated the prototype, eliminating meeting mode as a response to opposing wills, for example, and adding a "couple's default setting," which lets the environment reflect a meeting of the minds. Then we sent the complete package to 50 select companies for alpha testing.

Some highlights of the alpha testers' reports:

Company A (makes natural bedding out of recycled dirt): "We put the individual chips right on our mood rings, but every time one of us picked up a cold natural-juice drink, fluorescent lights came on, the music changed into binky electronic Bach, the screen saver morphed into rapidly shifting geometric patterns, and the room got perceptibly colder, with a bracing scent of pine-wood and a whiff of freshly brewed coffee. We have a coffee-free work environment. The whole thing has way too much yin energy."

Company B (does market research on long-term responses to follow-up surveys): "The program worked so well that no one did any work; everyone was too busy trying different stimuli. Every time we had a meeting, they were like 'Let's talk about new products so the room will turn red,' or 'Let's ask some nasty questions so the program will go magenta to get us back to work.' "

Company C (sells product placements on cable-television advertorials, so when, for instance, the juicer guy stops for a soda, he turns the label toward the camera): "We got hacked. One day we came in and every office looked like a different type of syndicated TV show. Human resources was set up like a soap opera, so whenever Linda finished a sentence about your 401k plan, enormous organ chords sounded. The bosses' offices made the sound effects from Hee-Haw. The CFO got the audio of the car chases from Dukes of Hazzard. The help desk got the Outer Limits sound track. Your program needs a lot more security."

Susan and I decided to move on to the beta test, but then the plug was pulled on the entire Buffalo project. What happened was that our own CFO, Jerry, found out that our network administrators had been messing with his default pattern, changing the up-tempo music, pinstripe screen saver, and computer-screen wallpaper that read "Spend every dollar as though it were your own!" to a tie-dyed screen saver and the Grateful Dead as acoustical background. He ordered every copy of Buffalo destroyed -- as a cost-cutting measure.

Susan and I have the last one, set to our virtual lovers' paradise. However, some bug in the code sometimes burps the program back into Jerry mode. Once when that happened, Susan stomped her foot in frustration, and the swimming pool screen saver came back on.

Which proves nothing about Buffalo's potential or the nature of business, but only that no matter how smart they get, computers are still half television set. Stomp the floor, and they behave themselves.

* * *

Moe Meyerson is a manager at a rapidly growing small company.