Leave cooking, cleaning to devices

Appliances: Automation is key to manufacturers' visions for the household of the future

January 24, 2000|By Jon Healey | Jon Healey,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

You might think your oven and refrigerator work just fine.

What you might not realize is that they're too dumb to keep up with the demands of your hectic lifestyle.

That, at least, is the way top appliance manufacturers see it. Last week they unveiled plans for an array of "smart" devices that can cook, stock the pantry and tackle household chores with little or no help from you.

Their vision is of a house filled with devices chattering silently to each other or to sites on the Internet, grabbing information about the weather or sending off an order for milk. It's a Jetsons world where no one has to know how to cook, they just have to know which button to push to wake up the virtual chef.

The average consumer, however, may not be ready to live there.

Frank Vettorel of San Jose, Calif., is a high-tech kind of guy, having spent his career at IBM. But he doesn't see any point in downloading recipes from the Internet into his appliances, or having his refrigerator keep track of the groceries he needs to buy.

"I envision this as a marketing gimmick on their part. That's all it is," Vettorel said. "They're trying to move the bar up one notch higher and create a market for people who always want to be on the cutting edge of things."

If this sounds like some Silicon Valley-fueled fantasy, that's partially true. Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and other high-tech companies have been showing the manufacturers how to give the gift of digital speech.

But officials at Sunbeam Inc., Maytag Corp. and Whirlpool Corp. insist that consumers want this stuff. Well, maybe not these specific models, but certainly the convenience that comes from an oven that downloads cooking instructions from the Internet, or an electric blanket that shuts off when your alarm clock rings.

The first of these appliances are expected in stores late this year, and with the possible exception of Sunbeam's smaller devices, they're likely to carry a premium price tag. The benefits may be obvious to the manufacturers, but consumers will probably need a bit of coaxing.

Bill Kenney, a vice president for strategy at Sears, Roebuck & Co., said people probably would have reacted the same way five years ago if you asked them whether they wanted the Internet in their house. "Until some of these products get out in the marketplace and regular people get to see them," he added, "it's going to be hard to gauge [the demand]."

Appliance makers believe that an increasing number of consumers will have home networks with high-speed, always-on Internet connections. And although the new appliances probably won't motivate anyone to install a home network, they would be a logical addition, said Gordon Van Zuiden of cyberManor, which helps consumers set up home networks.

The devices announced last week include:

A coffeemaker, mixer, electric blanket, smoke detector, bathroom scale and blood-pressure monitor from Sunbeam that can talk wirelessly to an Internet-ready kitchen countertop console, palm-sized organizer or alarm clock.

Don't like to use a measuring cup? The mixer's sensors will tell you when to stop pouring. Going on a diet? The scale can track your weight and recommend recipes.

The clock, meanwhile, directs the coffeemaker to start brewing 10 minutes before its alarm sounds, and it starts warming the electric blanket shortly before you hit the bed. Future versions could talk to the scale and, if needed, wake you up earlier with instructions to go jogging.

A microwave oven by General Electric that sets cooking times based on the bar codes on packaged foods. GE also is bringing out a full-sized oven that responds to voice commands in up to 250 regional accents, although it probably can't be told to make something "delicious."

Refrigerators by GE and Whirlpool with removable touch-screen control pads that can connect wirelessly to the Internet or other devices around the home, downloading recipes or controlling other appliances.

Mike Todman, senior vice president of North American sales and marketing for Whirlpool, said the company envisions the pad not only as a home controller, but also as an electronic calendar and message board -- making it the most powerful and expensive refrigerator magnet ever. The fridge also could tote up a shopping list by scanning the bar codes of empty packages, then order supplies over the Internet.

The idea of having a refrigerator ordering its own refills is disturbing to Gene Powers, president of a software start-up company.

Powers considers himself a "bleeding-edge kind of guy in most areas," willing to try new technologies before his neighbors do. But he doesn't like the idea of some unseen entity collecting information about what his family eats and drinks, saying, "It's kind of a Big Brother issue."

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