Colorful new appliances can think

Home: Smarter machines, prettier products in dazzling hues dominate 2000 International Housewares Show.

January 30, 2000|By Lisbeth Levine | Lisbeth Levine,Special to the Sun

CHICAGO -- It was all about brains and beauty at the 2000 International Housewares Show. Brains took the form of techno-savvy appliances that can link up to the Internet to download recipes or communicate with each other. (How about an alarm clock that tells the coffee maker when to start brewing?)

For attention-getting looks, nothing matched the iMac-inspired colors that set everything from microwave ovens to vegetable peelers aglow in translucent shades of tangerine, blueberry and lime.

Sensual curves gave hand mixers, milk frothers and irons an appealing silhouette, often combined with ergonomic improvements that make them more comfortable to use.

Other recurring themes at the show were Asian-themed dinnerware, ultra-specialized products that fulfill a micro function (sometimes this was taken to extremes -- do we really need orange and black storage bins for Halloween decorations?), products geared toward improving or monitoring health, and stainless steel appliances to complement the Sub-Zero refrigerators in professional-style kitchens.

The 103rd annual show, which is sponsored by the National Housewares Manufacturers Association and is not open to the public, drew more than 60,000 attendees -- primarily store buyers -- to Chicago in mid-January.

The products in the 1,900 booths cover every aspect of the home, from pet-related gizmos to closet organizers, though the focus is on small appliances, cookware and tabletop lines. Talk of the "smart home" dominated the show, and some of the wizardry carried overtones of the Jetsons or HAL, the robot in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Coincidentally, perhaps, many of these products are still in the prototype stage and are scheduled to begin production in 2001.

Samsung showed off a prototype of its Intelligent Microwave, which is designed to read the bar codes on food packages and hook up to an Internet Web site where it can download the cooking instructions. The microwave will then automatically cook the item according to the directions. Voila! Fish sticks without the fuss. It also has a food safety aspect, in that it could alert consumers to product recalls, said Dennis Joyner, Samsung's national marketing manager for home appliances. Joyner said that the company hopes to introduce the product in 2001.

Sharp Electronics showed off its Internet-ready convection microwave, which was introduced in Japan last October and sells for about $1,000, but doesn't yet have a debut date in the United States. It lets you find recipes by ingredient (say you want to use up the broccoli in the refrigerator and need ideas) and will download cooking instructions for more than 400 recipes from a Web site into its cooking data box, which will then convey instructions to the microwave itself. It even comes with pre-planned menus and "lunch-box suggestions."

But the most exciting news on the technology front wasn't about devices that could just talk to the Internet, but appliances that could speak to each other. Thalia, a company owned by Sunbeam, introduced its Home Linking Technology, which uses electrical wiring in the house and, in some cases, radio frequencies to link appliances.

The nine products at the show included an alarm clock that will signal the coffee maker to start brewing 10 minutes before it's set to go off. While you sleep, the clock can dial up to the Internet, download the weather forecast and display it on a screen. These appliances at the show, which are scheduled to hit the market in early 2001, are all by Sunbeam, but Thalia will eventually license the technology to other manufacturers.

The appliances work simply by being plugged in, and only certain products require Internet access. "Consumers want relief," says John Hamann, president of chief executive officer of Thalia Products. "They want something to take away some of the stresses they have in life." Prices will be comparable to other upscale products, said Hamann, so the coffee maker would retail somewhere between $40-$80.

Color was the other major attention-getter in appliances and gadgets. Translucent hues inspired by the popularity of iMac computers turned up on microwaves at Sharp that will look right at home in dorm rooms come fall, on iSi's vegetable peelers, and as an accent on the battery-operated Waterpik Flosser. While it's not rare to find daring colors on impulse purchases, it is surprising to see bright purple space heaters from Toastmaster and orange vacuum cleaners from GoldStar. Perhaps manufacturers want to lure people into thinking that a fun color will take the drudgery out of vacuuming. Orange seemed to be positioned as the funky color du jour.

"It's replacing what used to be teal and yellow and red" in children's rooms, said Yaffa Licari, who introduced tangerine storage cubes in her Yaffa line.

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