Smart appliances need to solve problems, not create them

samsung family hub
RichShibley/Digital Trends
I’m stalled at the dairy case at the supermarket, and my head is spinning as the 6-o’clock rush of shoppers impatiently parts around me. Like me, they’re frantically trying to figure out what they need to string together a meal. Like me, they’re not really sure.

Do I have sour cream or not?

The mashed cauliflower recipe I’m making calls for it, but I can’t remember if there’s any left in the fridge. Or if it’s any good. So I grab a tub and head home, where I discover that, yes, I already had a full tub of perfectly good sour cream. Now I have two, one of which will go bad before I can use it.

An excess of sour cream may be a textbook First World problem, but the underlying cause is more legitimate: Our kitchens contain a constantly shifting inventory of ingredients that run out, go bad, and sometimes, just get shoved to the back of the fridge never to be seen again. For most of us, tabulating this inventory and creating meals from its contents is an entirely mental exercise. One we often fail at. One computers would be really good at.

I’ve just spent nearly two weeks in Las Vegas taking in the latest smart-home technology at the International Consumer Electronics Show and Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, and no one has solved this problem, or the myriad of similar stumbling blocks at home. (Samsung made a nice try by putting a camera inside a fridge, but if your fridge is anywhere near as crowded as mine, that is not a solution.)

Here’s what I have seen: a television in a refrigerator, an oven I can preheat with my phone, and a video doorbell that shows who’s outside on a screen instead of in a hole.

Yale's Doorbell Cam
Nick Mokey/Digital Trends

It’s 2016, and today’s smart-home technology is still defined almost entirely by solutions in search of problems. The hipster mantra “put a bird on it” has become “put a sensor in it.” Today’s “smart home” market is a yard sale of hand-me-downs from the consumer electronics biz, hammered carelessly into existing home goods for no apparent reason. Screens, Bluetooth chips, Wi-Fi, all blipping and blooping to each other while your turkey burns in the oven.

The “smart home” people will pay money for something that doesn’t add novelty, but solves real problems. Why can’t my toaster auto-detect the right amount of toastiness and stop, instead of requiring me to hover over it for fear of setting off a fire alarm that has no idea that burned toast does not constitute a fire? Why can’t my electric range turn off automatically when I lift a pot off it? Why can’t my alarm clock arm itself when I climb in bed? Why does Samsung, one of the world’s best consumer electronics companies, make the only dishwasher that has made me want to tear the door off it in frustration?

The hipster mantra “put a bird on it” has become “put a sensor in it.”

Or back to my original point: Why can’t my kitchen tally what’s in it, tell me what to buy at the store, suggest recipes when I get home, and help me make them? Irritated engineers reading this article are probably yelling at the screen right now, “because it’s hard.” Really hard. No doubt, it will take a lot of machine learning to discern Grandma’s leftover spaghetti sauce from my extraneous tub of sour cream.

But it’s certainly possible. I can search Google Photos for “waterfalls” right now and see every picture I’ve taken of one over the last seven years, in about two seconds. I’m pretty sure we can find a way to catalog the contents of my fridge.

Our best hope for actually solving these problems in the next decade might be us. The crowd. Kickstarter and Indiegogo have churned out dozens of “why didn’t I think of that” smart gadgets over the last few years, from a Saran wrap dispenser that actually works to — look at that! — a smart oven that’s actually smart.

MAID Oven

The best appliance companies have learned this. GE’s FirstBuild community allows anyone with an idea to submit it on the site, let other people vote on it, and even help shepherd it to production in GE microfactories set up specifically for this purpose. Anyone with an idea that makes it to store shelves cuts a cut of the revenue. They even have a kitchen inventory system in the works!

The worst appliance companies continue to pump out uninspired junk with needless new features stolen from smartphones. I’m not pointing any fingers.

Next year, I want to come back to home tech tradeshows like CES and KBIS and find something that solves a problem. I want to turn over my hard-earned money for a smart-home gadget that actually speaks to me.

And dammit, I want to know if I have any sour cream or not.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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