What to do when the stove talks back (and other problems with smart appliances)

when-the-stove-talks-back-header-3Lying in the vast Promised Land between connected things that are obviously useful and things that are uselessly awful, are connected appliances. Yes. Appliances. That connect. To the Internet.

“Why?!” you say. “How?!” you ponder. Why and how, indeed …

Imagine a sentient refrigerator that automatically inventories items as you load it, knowing not only what the item is but everything about it, such as when it expires or what it could be used for. Start pulling out eggs and flour and chocolate chips and the home prompts you with a chocolate chip cookie recipe and tells the oven to pre-heat itself. (That’s right, oven. You listen up when ‘fridge is talkin’!) And, since we’re in the future, the recipe will display on the counter from an overhead projector. You’d never misplace anything again, because your clothes will have RFID tags and the home will know exactly where your missing sock went. Of course, it won’t tell you, because your wife figured out how to program it and is screwing with you.

But, that’s all still in … the future. What about the today and the now?

If you’re so smart, ‘fridge, shut the damn door yourself!

Surely all of this connectivity and the full, awesome power of the Interwebs hasn’t been solely for tormenting your children from anywhere on the globe by logging into your home and changing the TV channel and forcing your six-year-old daughter to watch a marathon sesh of Senate appropriation hearings. There must be more …

What could the mighty, unholy power of the Internet bring to something mundane like say a toaster or a Cuisinart? And could the hole in your unsatisfying life be filled with the buttery goodness of an Internet accessible bread maker?  A recent visit to my local Home Depot prompted me to ask, “What can you tell me about smart appliances?” This elicited the lengthy, insightful and detailed answer of, “Smart appliances? Now why in the world would you want that?”

That is the question I seek to answer. Now.

Refrigerator

On the surface, you might scoff at the idea of a smart refrigerator. “Why do I need a machine to tell me that my milk has gone bad?! And maybe I like day old milk. Did the ‘smart fridge’ ever think of that?! The lumps are where the flavor lives! Not so smart now, are you fridge?!”

Both Samsung and LG demonstrated “smart refrigerators” at CES this past January that had some promising features. Both models feature touch-screen displays that can serve as 21st Century photo displays. Since they are made of metal, you can still kick your photos old-school, magnet-style if you prefer. Beyond pics, the touchscreens allow full Web browsing and integrates with Google calendar, allowing the family to keep their schedules in sync. You can use the screen to keep tabs on items you need at the store, so you won’t forget that you drank that last of your Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale and desperately need more. You can also input items into the screen, letting the fridge know your food inventory. In turn, it can suggest recipes, generate coupons and notify you when something is about to spoil.

Sub Zero Control ScreenSub-Zero has Smart Appliance Modules that allow their refrigerators to integrate with Control4 and Crestron automation systems. You can then use your smart phone to increase ice production prior to that big party, ensuring you avoid the humiliating “What do you mean no ice for my scotch?!” scene. The modules can also put the system into energy saving mode during vacations or notify you of any service issues. Also, you can get an email informing you that a door has been left open, which is helpful if you’re still home but will fill you with dread all day long if you’re already at work. If you’re so smart, fridge, shut the damn door yourself!

Of all of the connected appliances, the smart refrigerator is the one that holds the most promise in my opinion. The kitchen is often a central gathering point, so the refrigerator makes sense to be a hub. As technology advances, the ability for the fridge to automatically know the food you have on hand – either via RFID or maybe just scanning your receipt – could be incredibly helpful; it might even find an answer to the eternal question of, “What can I make with four carrots, a jar of mayo, two things of ketchup, something that is possibly an onion and six cases of beer?” Also, the fridge could become like a personal diet coach, shaming you with stern texts as you go for that midnight ice cream or just locking you out altogether. Isn’t the future amazing?

My wife is certain that if that garage door is left up one minute after sundown, we are inviting an attack from the zombie hordes.

Washer/Dryer

With Whirlpool’s smart washer and dryer, you can be notified remotely when your laundry is done. Or start a load of laundry. Or remotely engage anti-wrinkle cycles on your dryer. Woopty-frickin’-doo. The problem I see with smart washer/dryers is that until they are smart enough to load the clothes in themselves – and then transfer from one unit to the other – they are still severely limited by requiring your interaction. So, who needs it? Have we gotten so pathetically lame that you need to be notified by an email that your laundry is done? If your home is part of a smart grid, these models can tap into that and run loads during off-peak power hours, so you can take some solace in not killing the planet, I guess. Also, you can download new “program cycles” as they become available, but we all know that you just use the same “Normal” cycle every time anyhow, so who cares?

Stove/Microwave Oven

One of the benefits touted with smart ovens like LG’s is the ability to remotely turn the oven on to preheat it. The idea of leaving the oven turned on when we’re not at home so completely terrifies my wife that I have more than once had to call neighbors and ask them to check to see if we left it on. So a feature where I can remotely turn it on … by choice?! I think I’ll take a powder on that one. However, the ability to check and show my wife that the oven is indeed turned off, thus allowing us to enjoy our family vacation at Disney World and not live with the constant specter that our home and everything we love and hold dear is smoldering in an oven fire? Priceless.

LG smart oven

Theoretically, you could leave something in the oven, letting it defrost out so it will be ready to start cooking right when you get home? Good in theory. But doesn’t all that meat just sitting there, non-refrigerated, churning out little armies of bacteria while it sits in a sealed, room-temp oven all day just sound a little “We might need to call the CDC” to you?

Getting updates from your oven on your phone about how much longer the 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey needs to cook (hint: at least an hour longer than anyone wants to wait) has some benefit, if it keeps you from missing something awesome on TV or your kid’s first steps or something. Another potential benny of a smart stove/microwave would be if it could know exactly what you planned on cooking – say, if the fridge told it when you removed the food – and automatically set itself for the optimal cooking time/temp.

Having said that, the Gorton’s Fisherman has never steered me wrong with his cooking instructions. So, again … why do I need a smart stove again?

Dishwasher

I put Whirlpool’s smart dishwasher squarely in the same group as the washer/dryer. Until it can load and unload dishes on its own then, brother, you still need a person at the helm! I don’t need to be able to turn my dishwasher on or off from the other side of the world; I’ve never needed a fork so badly that I had to be notified the second the dishes were done, and I can damn well look inside and see if I need any more detergent. And I’ve never been in such a hurry that the extra two seconds needed to press “Start Wash” on the dishwasher has made me late for anything.

Garage Door

Truth: I recently installed a web interface module on my personal Chamberlain garage door opener at home and it is frickin’ awesome! Before this thing came into my life, I lost track of how many times I had to get up and check to see if the garage door is closed to appease my wife. Usually when I’m in bed. At, like, midnight. It’s my personal hell. Even though we live in a gated community, my wife is certain that if that garage door is left up one minute after sundown, we are inviting an attack from the zombie hordes.

But with this ingenious device and free app, I can now check the status of my garage door from the civilized, scotch-drinking recesses of my couch/bed and close the door! Or, if someone were to need to get into my home while I’m away, I can now easily raise the door.Boop! Open! It’s like magic. The app can notify me if I’ve left the door open for a specified amount of time and I can also set it to alert me whenever the door is opened or closed; you know, to break the monotony of my Twitter stream or something. Not to mention that integration kits are available for a wide array of models and it sells for under $100.

I take back all the bad things I said about you, home automation!

Pool/Spa Pumps

iAquaLinkWhile not an appliance per se, companies like Jandy have been making smart pool/spa controllers such as the iAquaLink for a while now. And what could you possible do with such a device? Oh, ye of little imagination.

For the playa on the go, could there be any greater awesome than meeting some honeys at a bar and having the spa ready to go by the time you get home? That’s the very height of Rico Suave.

Or, say you are relaxing in your chaise lounge, delicate, umbrella-filled tropical beverage in your hand, and wonder, “Hmm, is it too cold to go swimming?” Sure, you could just get up and feel the water. But what if you’ve lost feeling in your foot or something … then what? How can you really be sure if the water is warm enough? Use a mercury thermometer that could break, spewing deadly poison into your glass, and slowly Arsenic and Old Lace you over the next several years? No. Smart app. There: technology may have just saved your life.

Water Heater

For the energy-savings-minded, or if you’re just cheap frugal, GE’s smart water heater can turn off when hot water demands are low, like when you’re sleeping. Or living in Phoenix. This could save you literally tens of dollars per year. But a smart water heater could also allow you to adjust its temperature remotely. And, be honest; who among us has any idea how to set the temperature on a hot water heater? Is it a dial? A set screw? Some kind of asymmetric key algorithm cipher? Also, you could easily put it into vacation mode, not heating water for an empty house, or your in-laws that who housesitting.

Do you really need a smart appliance? Probably not. But do you think that’s going to keep appliance manufacturers from bringing more and more of them to market in the coming years? Of course not! This tech is on the horizon, whether we want it or not, so you may as well get ready for it. At the very least, it might make your daily chores a little less soul destroyingly boring. If nothing else just think of all the fun that the Anonymous hackers can have!

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