Smart appliances

Household appliances took a long time to grow into modern electronic devices. But when it was realized what could be done, the leap was impressive.

My family just bought a washer and dryer equipped with direct drive permanent magnet motors and extremely smart controls. It takes only a gallon of water to run a full load of laundry, and watching it spin at upwards of 1000rpm is impressive. As the inaugural load ran, we all found ourselves drawn to it, much like the proverbial families of the 1950s were to their television sets. My wife's friend later quipped, “I bet you can even get HBO on that thing!”

As a child, the only smart appliance I remember was an automatic tea maker that sat on my parent's bedside table. As a combination alarm clock and radio as well, it was pretty advanced for its day.

At the same time, fertile imaginations were dreaming up other futuristic appliances. One was a combination stovetop and fridge. With it, a lucky housewife could move food from the fridge underneath to the stovetop — without having to take a step.

Another was a complete stove with a built-in TV on the back control panel, which the inventors could envision displaying recipes. I doubt either product made it to the market. At that time, it would have been very difficult to make the display technology practical.

However, that's no longer the case. Flat-screen TVs have dramatically changed the possibilities that are available or can be conceived by the imaginative marketer. Although I haven't seen that smart stove pop up on the market (though, it would be practical, maybe allowing you to follow along with a chef on The Food Network), other imaginative products have emerged.

Everything but the kitchen sink

LG Electronics' latest smart fridge is a case in point. It has two displays. An LCD above the icemaker (cubed or crushed, darling?) features a stored photo album (USB downloaded), a calendar (with anniversary alarm) and lots of downloaded recipes and menus. A 15in color LCD TV on the other door has RF and video inputs. The fridge also features an FM receiver and a 162MHz NOAA Weather Radio receiver, closed captioning and the inevitable parental control V-chip, as well as stereo audio from 1.5W amplifiers. Everything, of course, can be remotely controlled.

I cannot imagine what sort of family would invest in all this technology in one place, but it presumably also has an easy chair in the kitchen. On the fridge, there should probably be a warning that says, “Using knives while watching your favorite soap opera can be hazardous!” As appliances continue to evolve, they make living easier and easier.

Futuristic need fulfillment

This reminds me of a Japanese proposal from some years ago. It was a fridge and pantry that could be accessed from outside the house, presumably with some security. You could call in your grocery order, and the delivery boy would stock the fridge and pantry from outside the house. Those were the days when deliveries were winding down, but deliveries are now back in some communities via Internet ordering and truck delivery. This proposal could be a practical solution in today's world.

Taking the idea a step further, maybe in the future, instead of physically calling in your grocery order, you would have a barcode scanner on the fridge. Every time you finished something from the fridge or pantry, you would scan it. Once a week, you'd hit a button on your remote control, and the grocery order would appear on a display in your favorite store. Presto change-o!

Darn it, LG, you nearly had me hooked on your fridge. But no scanner? What were you thinking?

Whether being so completely wired and interconnected in every aspect of our day-to-day lives is a good thing is yet to be fully answered. But I'm afraid that even pondering it will have to wait for now. An old favorite is now playing — on the spin cycle.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant on the West Coast.

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