High tech home appliances: The micro‘wave’ of the future

By Barbara Mayer, For AP Special Edition
Sunday October 07, 2001

Refrigerators that diagnose their own ills and microwaves that download recipes and cooking instructions from the Internet? Ready or not, here they come. 

Features that have been talked of or shown in prototype for years are now on their way to retail stores, with introductions set for the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002. 

Manufacturers in the vanguard are betting that a significant segment of the public will pay extra for an appliance that can access the Internet, offering opportunities for remote diagnostics, access to food facts and recipes, ability to exchange e-mails and digital photos — all while the user is eating breakfast or cooking dinner. 

Consumers could gain convenience and in some cases dollar savings from Internet features. “For example, a dishwasher could negotiate with the power company on its own without the homeowner having to get involved to run the machine when rates are lowest — maybe at 3 a.m.,” says Joseph McGuire, American Home Appliance Manufacturers Association (AHAM) president. 

With remote diagnostics, a dealer or manufacturer could tap into the appliance and do some troubleshooting so that the repair person arrives with the right part. 

Thanks to the barcode reader that will be incorporated into some refrigerators, reminders that foods are outdated, automatic shopping lists and computerized ordering of foods may also be possible. 

Samsung, LG Electronics and Whirlpool Corp. are among companies readying Internet-enabled kitchen appliances for introduction by the end of this year or in the first quarter of next year. 

Samsung, for example, will market a microwave oven with a removable cartridge that accesses the Internet at a home computer and then goes back to the microwave with up to 15 recipes at a time (scrolling will be required to read the complete recipe) along with step-by-step cooking instructions. 

Samsung looks to introduce the microwave in the last quarter of 2001. Pricing is not set, but the model should be only a little more expensive than a comparable model without the cartridge, a spokesman says. 

Both LG Electronics, a leading Korean company, and Whirlpool Corp. will introduce Internet-ready refrigerators in the United States in 2002. They will not require any special hookups beyond a phone modem and a standard electric plug. 

A version of LG’s refrigerator already sells for about $10,000 in Korea. The fridge has its own touch screen and electronic pen for messages and reminders as well as a videophone and digital camera. It can be used to surf and shop the Internet, download recipes, watch TV, listen to music, and more. 

The company also is working on Internet-ready microwave ovens, air conditioners and washing machines, but sees the refrigerator as key. “In the future, everything in the house will be tied together through the refrigerator, since it’s the only appliance on 24 hours a day,” says Sonny Marak, vice president of sales for home appliances at LG Electronics USA. 

Whirlpool’s refrigerator will have a built-in bar code reader to keep track of foods that pass their expiration date. Moving beyond individual appliances, in 2002 Whirlpool also will introduce to builders only a package of Internet-ready appliances with broadband connections, either through high speed DSL telephone lines or cable wiring. The package includes a refrigerator, dishwasher, cooktop and microwave oven. 

“A suite of products would allow a higher level of home management control and broadband gives far more access to multimedia files and quick downloading,” says Tom Kline, a Whirlpool spokesman. “Consumers could gain access to a live video demonstration of the very meal they are trying to prepare.” 

The reason for restricting its suite of products to builders is that only houses already outfitted with high speed lines will be suitable to make use of the appliances. Getting broadband connections into the kitchen as a retrofit is too costly and difficult, according to Kline. Costs have not yet been set for the new products. 

Of course, for different appliances to work together they need to communicate. AHAM has set up a committee of 20 interested companies to develop standards for interconnectivity. The goal is to set a standard by the end of 2001. 

Meanwhile, a number of products already available communicate in new ways, thanks to computerized intelligence. As an example, Whirlpool’s Calypso washing machine doesn’t require the user to indicate the size of the wash load. The machine knows how much water to provide based on a sensor that “knows” how much laundry is in the tub. A companion dryer measures moisture in clothing and turns itself off when the sensor “realizes” the clothes are dry, which might save as much as 20 minutes of drying time. 

A central air conditioner by Carrier makes use of multiple sensors that control the output of cooling to a number of different areas of the home depending on what the actual temperature is in that particular area. This is an improvement on the typical central system with one sensor at a single location. 

An electric control system marketed by Cutler-Hammer includes a smart circuit board and special light switches. These are used together to program house lights to variable levels. The system also protects appliances against power surges and lightning strikes and monitors how much electric power various appliances are using. 

While the bells and whistles of Internet connection and other so-called smart appliances may initially attract consumers, what is perhaps more important is that these are early examples in a new way of thinking about the home as a total internal and external communications system. 

In this new world of total connectivity, appliances will be part of a home network that includes a home computer, television and telephone as well as indoor and outdoor lighting, home security, and heating and air conditioning systems. 

It could become commonplace to control many home functions by telephone or computer screen, turning them on and off via remote control commands. 

Whether the world of total connectivity will appeal to consumers is not entirely clear. “Intel’s research indicates retirees with time on their hands are getting hooked on connectivity of all kinds. The key is to make connectivity extremely user-friendly,” says Larry Wethje, vice president of technical services, AHAM. 

“Energy management already interests consumers, but remote control features may need more education” says AHAM’s McGuire.