||Household Appliances, Devices Making All the Right Connections
Is your refrigerator running? If you don't know, just ask it.
A vision of the future is taking shape that will allow communication with the ever-increasing number of gadgets in people's homes: A refrigerator suggests recipes based on its contents and keeps track of when the milk is going to expire. A wall-mounted sensor detects when a person leaves the house and turns down the temperature to a preset level. A homeowner who forgets to close the garage door can do so from across town via a smartphone application.
All of these capabilities are available now and were on display here at the recent 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show, where companies were trying harder than ever to advance their vision of a truly connected home that encompasses entertainment devices, appliances, energy and security.
"Last year there was a lot of trialing" around the idea of home-control systems, said John Burke, general manager of converged experiences at Libertyville-based Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc., which builds this technology for cable operators and other service providers. "This year, it's more of a mainstay core staple service. There's a lot of runway ahead of it."
Companies at CES say mainstream adoption of connected home technology is gaining momentum, aided by several broader shifts in the consumer technology industry, but still several years away. For starters, an increasing number of devices come with built-in Wi-Fi capability, allowing an easy link with the Internet and with each other. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group, shipments of Wi-Fi devices hit almost 1.1 billion in 2011 and will double by 2015. These gadgets include not just TVs and gaming consoles, but also smart meters and home automation products.
"The home is the first place where you have a truly wirelessly connected environment," said Sachin Lawande, chief technology officer of audio company Harman International.
The increasing primacy of the smartphone and tablet computer also are driving the connected home movement. Because consumers have these powerful mobile computers with them at all times, the gadgets can act as a central and portable control panel for managing a wide range of machines.
"The smartphone has been the linchpin of much of this connectivity," said Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America. At CES, Samsung showed off a washing machine that can be controlled and monitored remotely with a smartphone application.
A tablet, meanwhile, can be mounted on the wall or carried around the home, providing another way for consumers to adjust the thermostat or track how much electricity their washing machine is using, all from one device that is familiar and easy to use.
"We believe it's important to get integrated with the screens that are in consumers' homes," said Jason Few, president of Reliant Energy, a Houston-based electricity services provider that had a smart energy monitor and related technology on display at CES. "We don't believe a thermostat is going to be a screen in a person's home. If we make it complicated, people won't use it, and we're in a category where we're trying to get people to use it for the first time."
One smart home technology company, Massachusetts-based Savant, has built its entire product line around Apple products. Homeowners can use an iPad to pipe music through the house, dim the lights or raise window shades.
"Apple has taught the masses how to use a touch screen," said Craig Spinner, Savant's director of marketing. "We're trying to ride the coattails of what Apple's done."
Price remains a hurdle, Spinner acknowledged. Installing the company's system in a three-bedroom home can cost between $10,000 and $12,000. But Spinner pointed to big service providers such as Comcast Corp. and ADT that are starting to offer smart home automation.
Parks Associates, a consumer technology research firm, estimates that more than 10 million U.S. households will have a remote monitoring and control system by 2014.
Motorola Mobility's Burke, who counts operators such as Comcast and Verizon Wireless as customers, said he believes consumers will embrace new services if they come bundled with existing subscriptions because they can sign up for one package.
"We've seen all the major operators in the Americas putting home security, control and monitoring in their offerings," Burke said.
Among big technology companies at CES, LG showed off a new smart refrigerator that has a small screen on the front and also has a smartphone app. Using a phone's camera, one can scan a grocery receipt or product, and the fridge then keeps a record of its contents, including when an item was bought and, thus, when it is likely to expire. Members of a household can also input personal health information such as age, blood pressure and allergies, and the refrigerator suggests daily and weekly meal plans customized to each person.
On the more affordable end of the smart home spectrum, Sears Holding Corp.'s Craftsman brand recently launched a two-way garage door opener that connects with a homeowner's smartphone. The product starts at $289.99 and comes with a small unit that plugs into a wireless router with an Ethernet cable. A pass code-protected smartphone app calls up information on whether the garage door is open and how long it's been open. Swiping a finger across the screen controls the door.
Kris Malkoski, vice president and general manager of Craftsman, said she believes the industry is three to five years away from reaching consensus on technology standards that will enable true interoperability between connected home devices. Craftsman's focus will be on products that are accessible, both in terms of usage and price, she said. The company plans to incorporate its AssureLink technology, which powers the new garage door opener, into other gadgets and tools for the home.
"We're seeing momentum and we're leading, but not with some isolated product," Malkoski said.
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who appeared at CES, said gadgets are yearning to talk to each other. In his view, the ability to automate a refrigerator or control lights remotely is simply how consumer technology should behave.
"Computing devices that are not on a network are lonely," Schmidt said.
(Source: Chicago Tribune, 01/12/12)
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