On the horizon, appliances that listen

June 13, 1993|By Michael Walsh | Michael Walsh,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

Imagine this: In the kitchen you have a video monitor hooked up to the same kind of electronic scanner that's at your grocery store checkout. When you're unbagging your groceries at home, you run the items across the scanner before you put them away to create an instant inventory. Later, when you're planning a meal, you can check the electronic inventory. How much canned chicken stock is in the pantry? Are there fresh greens in the refrigerator? Are those frozen peas in the freezer or frozen green beans?

To find out you won't have to go into the pantry, dig through the cabinets or open the refrigerator or freezer. Instead, you'll examine the electronic inventory first and then adjust your meal planning accordingly.

And that's not all. As you use up your foodstuffs, you'll scan them again. They'll automatically be removed from the on-hand inventory and, if you wish, added to an electronic shopping list. Then, you can take the list to the store, or, perhaps, transmit it over your personal computer's modem or a fax machine and have the store deliver your order.

A kitchen scanning system is only one of the new developments that technologists, engineers and marketing types are now working on that -- on the surface, at least -- promise to make home life easier. While high-tech appliances may sound futuristic, the truth is they're right around the corner.

Take, for example, the microwave garbage disposer. A prototype has been developed in Japan. Instead of grinding perfectly biodegradable food scraps in an under-the-sink disposer and then sending them into the municipal sewer system, you put them into a little appliance of some sort that incinerates them. The resultant ash or cinders can then go into your compost heap.

Voice-activated faucets

The automatic faucet already exists. Put your hand under the spout and the water comes on all by itself -- at a preselected temperature. A built-in motion sensor activates the water. The ultimate in hands-off convenience? Not by a long shot. Voice-activated faucets are just over the horizon. Issue a command -- "on," "off," "warm," "cold," "tepid" -- and the faucet will obey.

For some, such gadgetry may sound frivolous. People with arthritis or those who lack grasping power, however, may well cheer. A new low-tech faucet in development will have knobs or levers that turn only 90 degrees, instead of 180 degrees, which means less twisting and dialing.

Technology that is voice-activated will also soon be applied to appliances -- ovens, cook tops, dishwashers: "Burner Four -- simmer; Burner Two -- boil." It may be that such appliances respond to voice commands and also recognize only certain voices. Your range may take orders from you, but it won't respond to a curious 4-year-old.

Voice-activated light switches may eventually make the Clapper device seem primitive. Other light switch systems may incorporate advanced sound or motion sensors. The lights will come on automatically when you enter a room and then go out when you leave. Such switches exist now, but some are flawed. Either they turn the lights out when you're still in the room but not moving or making any noise (while reading, say), or they turn the lights on when the dog next door barks. Engineers are working on fine-tuning.

What's still unknown is how voice-activated gizmos will know when you are talking to them and not to your children. If you tell Junior to wash the dog, will the dishwasher turn itself on? And what happens when you use the words high, low, stop, down, hot, cold, on or off in the course of normal conversation? The solution may be a password used in conjunction with an order: "Dishwasher, on."

Temperature control

Another electronic device, just now hitting the market, allows you to turn on the water in the tub or shower without actually getting in. A touch-pad control will turn the water on -- again, at a preselected temperature.

Among other "smart" appliances en route are dishwashers and clothes washers that you fill with detergent just once a month. The machines will automatically determine the size of the loads to be washed and then dispense just the right amount of `D detergent.

High tech is coming to the bathroom, too. The Kohler Co. already has a toilet designed to call a truce between the war of the sexes. The "Peacekeeper's" flushing mechanism is activated when the lid is lowered.

A Japanese firm has developed a retrofit toilet seat that turns a conventional toilet into an on-demand bidet. Other Japanese manufacturers are now marketing "paperless" toilets that use water and warm air. That may sound goofy to some, but if it helps the elderly or disabled to lead lives of dignity and to maintain their independence in their own homes, such fixtures may well have a niche in the marketplace.

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