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When refrigerators tweet and washing machines text

John D. Sutter
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Texting dryers, tweeting fridges
  • At CES no home appliance is too small or insignificant for an internet hookup
  • Kitchen ovens download recipes; bathroom scales have Wi-Fi connections
  • LG says devices that communicate with their owners can make life simpler
  • But the idea of appliances contacting their owners doesn't sit well with some

Editor's note: Follow @cnntech, @jdsutter and @markmilian for Twitter updates this week from the Consumer Electronics Show.

Las Vegas (CNN) -- Phones are "smart." So are TVs.

Now, according to tech companies at the Consumer Electronics Show, it's time to equip pretty much everything else in the home with smart technology, too.

"Smart technology -- really?" Jane Lynch, who plays Sue on "Glee," said in a video at an LG press conference here. "Just exactly what do you mean by smart technology? Smart like Einstein? Smart like LG products can read my mind?

"Are you telling me my refrigerator will know things, like what I'm craving right now?"

Not exactly. But pretty close.

The list of internet-connected -- i.e. "smart" -- gadgets promoted at this massive technology trade show includes washing machines that send text messages and communicate with smartphones, refrigerators that play music from the internet, and kitchen ovens that download recipes and can essentially teach you to cook.

It seems no gadget is too small or insignificant for an internet hookup.

Even bathroom scales have Wi-Fi connections.

Cedric Hutchings, CEO of a French tech company called Withings, has been using his company's Wi-Fi-enabled scale to tweet his weight to friends.

It's like digital peer pressure, he said. When he noticed his weight going up early in the year, he decided to start cutting back on fatty foods.

A graph of his weight on his iPhone, which is connected to the scale, too, shows he's lost about 20 pounds since the summer.

If his scale hadn't been hooked up to the internet, sending and charting his weight, he would not have noticed the "seasonal yo-yo effect" in his weight, he said.

Larger companies such as LG, Panasonic and Samsung are trying to link up all of the big-ticket household appliances to the internet -- with a variety of goals in mind.

Samsung's internet-enabled refrigerator, which is expected to go on sale in May for about $3,500, features a touchscreen interface above its ice dispenser. The display runs apps from Samsung's app ecosystem, which has been used primarily on TVs so far.

These internet-linked programs let the refrigerator's owners read news, make to-do and shopping lists, get recipes from Epicurious and post to Twitter. Two speakers and a photo-card reader are tucked underneath the ice dispenser, letting users stream Pandora music and load their digital photos to the screen.

James Politeski, Samsung's senior vice president for home appliances, said these apps are "location specific," meaning they're designed to be useful to people who are in the kitchen and looking at the refrigerator. Samsung doesn't offer video apps on the fridge because that would make no sense, he said.

"Are you going to watch YouTube on your refrigerator? ... That's what the TV is for," he said.

Others aim to do more than bring internet features to touchscreens on appliances.

LG is promoting a future where all home appliances talk to each other, and to you.

Patrick Steinkuhl, LG's product insight manager, described the system like this:

"Imagine an oven that's so smart that on the day of the big game it's able to send you a text and say, 'Hey, your roast is about done. You'd better get in the kitchen.' "

The idea of appliances contacting their owners doesn't sit well with some.

Politeski said Samsung, for now, has avoided these types of text-you applications because, in market surveys, consumers said they're already suffering from information overload.

Who needs more text messages -- from the washing machine?

"People don't want to be nagged," he said.

But LG said that devices that communicate with their owners -- via text messages, phone apps or other sorts of alerts -- can make life simpler and better, too.

The company showed off internet-enabled washing machines, refrigerators and ovens at CES. Some of the products will be out on the market later this year, but they will feature only limited versions of consumer-alert systems, said Steinkuhl, LG's product insight manager. He said subsequent models would continue to add features.

LG's upcoming refrigerator, for example, claims to know what food you're storing and when it will go bad. For the fridge to know that, however, owners have to tell the appliance what food they're storing on which shelves -- and enter its expiration dates.

That's still a useful organizational tool, he said. The smart appliances also connect to the internet to run diagnostics and to figure out when the best time to do laundry is. In some areas, you can save money by running appliances when other people aren't using much electricity since it's relatively cheaper to give that power to you.

In the future, refrigerators may use some type of tagging technology to alert the appliance automatically to the presence of food that might go bad, he said. The fridge then, of course, could text its owner to make sure the sour food wasn't consumed.

Panasonic is promoting the energy savings associated with internet-enabled appliances.

At CES, the company showed two mock-up appliances that learn about their users' habits to operate more efficiently. A refrigerator might learn when a person typically opens the freezer door, for instance -- and could use that data to change cooling patterns.

The company also demonstrated a home energy-management system that would connect all appliances in the house, potentially over the internet, to show homeowners where they're wasting energy and how they could save money by being more efficient.

"In the future, I think every appliance -- everything we buy -- is going to be connected with each other so they can optimize their performance," said Joey Liao, who was running the company's smart-technology demos at CES.

But not everyone is sold.

Connecting home appliances to the internet isn't exactly a new concept. And Kurt Scherf, an analyst at Parks Associates, used the example of an animated TV series about a futuristic family to explain why it hasn't taken off.

"It's just too Jetsonian to be practical," he said.


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