The future is hatching

The kitchen of tomorrow has arrived, with smart appliances that are ready to transform your life

Family Matters

October 10, 2004|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As any reader of the Brothers Grimm, L. Frank Baum or even J.K. Rowling can attest, the idea of a magic wand casts a powerful spell on the human imagination. Probably no sooner did our cave-dwelling forebears wield their first stick, in fact, than they began longing for even more powerful technologies to make life easier.

Harried homemakers, then, may be intrigued to learn that a new type of magic wand is about to alter the way we live. Will it (gling!) turn drab footwear into red sequined pumps a la The Wizard of Oz? Um ... no, but it can help get dinner ready faster.

Called "Bluetooth technology" - almost a fairy-tale name, inspired by King Harald Bluetooth, a Viking who unified Denmark and Norway in the 10th century - it is a short-range, wireless communication system that connects mobile devices. You may already be aware of its applications such as a wireless computer keyboard or PDA (personal digitized assistant.)

What you might not know is that Bluetooth technology is currently being installed by well-known manufacturers - Whirlpool, Toshiba, Salton and Sears among them - into a variety of household appliances such as microwave ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers and coffeemakers. These so-called "smart" appliances will communicate with their owners as well as take commands, even when given from distant locations.

"Technology historically has come into the house through the kitchen," said Ted Selker, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "I mean fire, water, air-conditioning (in the form of refrigeration), electrical heating and lighting."

That Bluetooth may soon join this list is hinted at by the Polara refrigerated range from Whirlpool. This invention allows Mom to make dinner (lasagna, say, or a roast chicken with vegetables) the night before and then chill it overnight in her Polara. Next day, using Bluetooth technology, she can dial in her cooking temperature and time. When running late, she can command the oven to go into a warming mode or, if she's tardier still, revert to refrigeration.

"There's a lot of talk about interconnectivity, so much so that we're all sick of it, yet everyone knows this is the future," said James Dyson, the British inventor who recently introduced a Bluetooth-enhanced version of his bagless vacuum cleaner for the Japanese market. The consumer simply points a cell phone at the Dyson cleaner, and within seconds a complete diagnostic of the machine appears onscreen in front of a toll-free operator who can then offer advice on usage and/or repair.

"There's no guesswork, no having to rummage around for the model's serial number, warranty, or trying to remember when you bought it," Dyson explains. "All that information is on a computer chip in the machine."

No limits to uses

Lessening household drudgery is the goal, according to Robert Graham, a product brand manager at Toshiba.

"Here's an example: My parents recently went on a trip and while they were gone, their freezer broke and everything in it - hundreds of dollars worth of food - went bad," he said. "Now, if the freezer had Bluetooth, it would have communicated with its manufacturer and said what's wrong. The manufacturer could send a message to my parents, or have sent a repairman, all without interrupting their vacation."

While such remote applications are tantalizing, the bigger issue for John Fini, executive director at Emerging Technologies of Baltimore, is what Bluetooth can do, day-to-day, inside a home.

"I think Dyson hit it right on the head. Bluetooth is the future," he said. "It's one of those ideas that only takes a little imagination to start thinking of more things you can do with it."

Fini is particularly excited about a new fleet of BMW automobiles that recently launched in Europe. When the driver gets in, his or her cell phone immediately connects with a Bluetooth interface in the car's dashboard. There is no cradle for the phone, no plug-ins. Rather, calls are made, hands-free, by voice commands. Cadillac is reportedly exploring similar features for its American models.

"If we take this analogy forward," Fini continues, "it's easy to imagine someone walking into their house and the whole place begins to function - computer, television, air conditioning and lights - all because their cell phone or PDA triggered a Bluetooth module at the front door."

If this sounds like an episode from the 1960s cartoon show The Jetsons, consider findings from a recent study by the Internet Home Alliance of Monterey, Calif., a consortium of companies (including IBM and Hewlett-Packard) that are testing how their products might work together in a connected home.

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