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Beam Me Up

The future comes in increments and great big bumps. Or maybe the other way around. It’s like the first time you saw someone with a cell phone. Bam! Big bump. What is that thing? A week goes by, you watch the news, you know what it is. Over the next year, one by one, your friends each get one. And today? We are living in the future. All of us are walking around with flip phones like Star Trek communicators, and it’s no big deal. We’ve even already gone beyond them, with iPhones and the like.

And now we’re doing our laundry in the future. Bam! Big bump.

This is beyond smart cards. Smart cards are old news – who uses quarters anymore? But now we needn’t even schlep to the laundry room and physically insert our smart card into a clunky box that we hand-feed with money or a credit card. Now we can just go online to a site like LaundryView.com from the Mac-Gray Corporation, or Coinmach’s just-launched CheckMyWash.com and fill our smart card via credit or debit card – and, while we’re there, check on screen to see if a dryer is available, or if our wash cycle is almost finished, or if a particular machine is out of order.

Outside the laundry room, there’s also a whole lotta future going on. Similar web-based technology, such as BuildingLink and MyBuilding.has begun to arrive in co-ops and condos, streamlining such tasks as package delivery, issuing work orders and building announcements, accessing building documents, and even broadcasting emergency alerts. If you have a BlackBerry or other type of smart phone, then residents can do all this walking to the market or on the commuter train home.

“I like things that make our building better and easier to live in,” says William Ragals, president for nearly five years of the 300-unit Strand Condominium at 500 West 43rd Street. Web-based building communication “adds to that equation. We used to have a system of putting little cards on mailboxes to tell people they had a package,” he says by way of example. “It was time-consuming, it took the staff away from the door, and there was no trail. With BuildingLink, there’s a [lobby] monitor that displays that a delivery has been received – it’s even color-coded for UPS, mail, FedEx, dry cleaning or what have you.” If you can’t get to the lobby? “When a package is logged in,” Ragals says, “an e-mail is sent to the person.”

Likewise, says Vivienne Gilbert, president of the historic 5 Tudor City (a.k.a. The Windsor), near the United Nations, “We have 800 units in the building, and a lot of them are investor-owned, so to connect with the owners and the tenants is difficult.” The board found MyBuilding.org “a relatively easy way to connect with all our constituents. It’s very useful to us.” The Windsor, she says, uses the web-based communication portal for package and delivery notification, online payment of maintenance/common charges, placing work orders from home computers, and other, less obvious uses.

“A lot of people are putting in resumes, so people know who their neighbors are and perhaps offer each other services and sell things they own,” Gilbert says. “You can get information about our gym membership and print out an application. You can join our parks organization online and volunteer to plant things. We have a community room available to tenants to rent, which they can do online.” And such documents as the proprietary lease and the bylaws are readily available. “It’s a time-saver,” Gilbert says. “For example, you can print out renewal applications, which you used to have to get from the managing agent.”

Web-based technology also modernizes the old idea of phone trees, where during emergencies one person phones two people, each of them phone two people and so on until, hopefully, everyone in the building is notified. BuildingLink, for example, had its baptism of fire – well, baptism of rain – on November 27, 2007, when a downpour overflowed the city’s sewer system and flooded the subbasement of 90 West Street in Manhattan, knocking out most of the building’s utilities. The BuildingLink Emergency Phone Message Broadcast System phoned recorded evacuation directives to 575 residents within 20 minutes, the company says. The EPMBS also allows for customized lists, so you could, for example, notify only residents of the “D” and “E” lines of a water shutdown. It also tracks call-progress and status, so that you can see who’s been contacted.

MyBuilding.org offers the similar, and perhaps even cooler, Voice Broadcaster, in which you can type the message you want to send, and voice-recognition software converts the text to a voice call.

“We do a completely customized look and feel for the building,” says MyBuilding.org CEO Guy Blachman, “with continuously updated contents about the neighborhood, the city, and the building, and we get neighborhood discounts for every building we work with.” BuildingLink likewise says it offers residents such discounts from dry cleaners, parking garages, and flower shops.

Other typical services include a building-wide marketplace for buying and selling items; listings of such service providers as dog-walkers and housekeepers with resident reviews; continually updated weather reports; and a calendar of building or citywide events.

“It’s a very complete system,” Ragals says of BuildingLink, for which his condo pays $13 per unit per year. “It’s user-friendly; everything is clearly displayed. You don’t have to be very computer-literate.”

That’s the thing about the future – it has to be easy and convenient. Sure, in 1920 a hobbyist could build his own crystal-radio set and tune in to embryonic broadcasters, but radios didn’t become commonplace till you could bring one home, plug it in, turn it on, and listen to dance music from some far-off rooftop nightclub.

“I assume they’ll become more useful as people become more used to them,” says Tudor City’s Gilbert. “It’s generational; some of us older people in the building are accustomed to dealing with the internet and others not so much. But we have a fairly young population, and as people go on, there will be more use of the system.”

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