At CES, brainy refrigerators plug smart-home future

A washing machine that orders its own detergent. A remote-controlled refrigerator with a built-in camera. That the household of the future will be wired and digitized is an oft-repeated mantra

Electronics makers appear to be trying everything technically possible to see what sticks. But just because it works doesn't mean it will work for consumers.

A refrigerator made by South Korean electronics giant LG has a door that opens automatically when one holds a foot beneath it. For cooks with full hands, this could be practical - but it could also be annoying if the door often pops open every time someone gets a bit too close.

In another LG innovation, a knock on the refrigerator elicits not the response "come in," but that a glass panel in the door becomes transparent, allowing a look inside without compromising the container's cool. It sounds clever - but how often such a trick would come in handy remains to be seen.

At this year's CES, refrigerators seem to be electronics makers' playground for showing off the newest wired-home tricks.

Samsung offers a model with a kind of giant tablet in the door, with a 21.5-inch touch screen through which users can order provisions.

Credit card issuer MasterCard, scouting for new business models, is on board with a new grocery shopping app.

But how well do old-tech refrigerators and new-tech tablets play together, when households keep appliances for 10 to 15 years, and mobile technology may be obsolete in a fraction of the time?

A networked home could open up new frontiers for business, too. Amazon, the world's largest retailer, has taken this concept and run with it, starting with its networked speaker Echo.

Echo not only follows voice commands to put on a record or turn up the volume, but can place shopping orders on the internet - through Amazon, first and foremost.

Through strategic partnerships, Amazon is planting its roots firmly in the smart home concept.

A washing machine made by US manufacturer Whirlpool is programmed to order detergent through the online retailer. Ford uses Amazon's voice-controlled assistant Alexa to connect to home automation from the driver's seat.

Partnerships are helping new players enter the market too. The Munich-based air conditioning and heating networker Tado announced plans for cooperation with telecom companies AT&T and O2 in the US and Britain.

But consumers have yet to embrace the networked home. Some promising concepts have flopped in the mass market, while others have settled for a niche.

Two years ago, the Mother smart-sensor system made its CES debut, promising to remind users to take pills or buy coffee. Today, Mother is being marketed only as an aid for the elderly, and founder Rafi Haladjian admits the broader market was not ready for it.

Also trending is the nascent idea of interconnecting data from multiple devices and services.

In the future, a streaming service's movie suggestions might incorporate information like whether the user is alone at home, what his or her mood is, even the room temperature, said Sean DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that hosts CES.

Developers are electrified by the possibilities: technology that could automatically access and synthesize data from networked thermostats, cameras or computer clocks.

But consumers have yet to trust it.

Intel is said to have at one point been developing a tool to improve a TV service by using surveillance cameras to gauge user's moods. In the end, they pulled the plug.

Last update: Tue, 28/06/2016 - 17:25

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