Appliances get `smart'

Digital: Household devices can be programmed to save time and energy.

July 18, 2002|By Al Ridenour | Al Ridenour,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Somewhere in Sweden a robot vacuum cleaner is scuttling beneath a dining table. A continent away, a Korean homeowner is using the videophone on his refrigerator. And, in Japan, technicians are teaching toilet seats to measure blood pressure.

As a new generation of "smart" appliances (those that digitally store and share information) are embraced by consumers overseas, U.S. companies are pushing harder to move households out of the century of iceboxes and washboards.

One of the most drastic efforts is targeted for the Playa Vista development near Marina del Rey, Calif., where the first of a suite of intelligent appliances from Whirlpool are to be installed this autumn. Ultimately targeted at the general market, this collection includes an Internet-enabled refrigerator, microwave, convection oven and dishwasher.

The high-tech refrigerator will fill its traditional role as a bulletin board for family memos, calendars and shopping lists, displaying information on a bracket-mounted wireless Web tablet loaded with planning software.

The wireless tablet, which can be removed and used anywhere in the home, connects with the other appliances and can be used remotely to set their controls and monitor their status or service needs. It can also be used as a Web browser for downloading device-specific cooking and washing instructions to be posted by Whirlpool.

"This is not just technology for technology's sake," said Ken Agid, Playa Vista vice president of marketing. "In terms of energy conservation, networked appliances can minimize peak loads. If you decide you'd like to cook a thick slab of bacon in your microwave, that device can send a message to the refrigerator saying, `Don't go into your high-energy ice cube manufacturing,' and to the washer, `Suspend the spin cycle 45 seconds while I cook these puppies.'"

Smart appliances can also be programmed to do the tasks during low-rate periods when residents are sleeping or out. They can assist with their own maintenance by performing diagnostics, and e-mail the user if they pinpoint a part that needs replacing.

Using embedded bar-code scanning technology, your refrigerator, Agid says, could maintain a user-defined inventory, compile grocery lists or suggest menus for which all ingredients are present.

Although only a handful of people call Playa Vista home, the population is expected eventually to swell to 15,000 or more. "We've got the wires in the walls and the [digital] signal in the streets," Agid said. "We actually have more cable connecting the signal than is currently needed."

Not everyone in the "smart living" business agrees that such infrastructure is necessary. Herman Cardenas, founder and CEO of GE Smart, a joint venture of General Electric and Microsoft, believes existing technology can be retrofitted.

"Your dishwasher, range and refrigerator all already connect at the load box," he said. "So why force anyone to build a separate network when you've already got one?"

Using a digital signal superimposed over standard wires carrying electricity, GE Smart automates home lighting, temperature and security.

More conventional Web-based technology is being employed. Incoming telephone calls, Cardenas says, can be routed directly to GE Smart speakers throughout the house, each with its own memory and Internet address.

"When you pick up the phone and realize it's a call you want to share with your family, you'll tell the speaker, `open call,' and then you'll hear the voice traveling anywhere you go in the home. The speakers can triangulate your position to find out where that is," he said.

Integration of voice-command technology into domestic systems is not unique to GE. The Italian Turboair Group has created a stove hood with speech-recognition capabilities, and the British bathroom manufacturer Twyford has endowed a prototype toilet with voice-activated flushing. There are also smart appliances that do the talking themselves. Sweden's Electrolux (maker of the robotic vacuum) is offering Indian consumers the "Washy Talky," a washing machine that prompts users with cues like "drop detergent, close lid and relax" in English or Hindi. And in Laurel, Md., Home Automated Living provides software that not only recognizes and obeys voice commands, but also speaks back. The company markets this interface under the not-quite-reassuring acronym HAL.

Similarly fanciful, if sometimes impractical, leaps of the imagination have characterized the smart appliance industry, Cardenas says. Concept products trotted out at trade shows in the late 1990s were often little more than attention-grabbing pipe dreams. With exasperation, he refers to the Web-operated blender he saw at a show a year ago. "Am I supposed to turn on my blender over the Internet not knowing whether my kid has his hand in it or not?"

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