Kitchen whiz: when your appliances already know the dinner drill

Enea Culverson of Samsung displayed an app that can interact with the refrigerator behind her. Among key features are cameras that take photos of items in the fridge, so shoppers can update their list of items.
John M. Blodgett for The Boston Globe
Enea Culverson of Samsung displayed an app that can interact with the refrigerator behind her. Among key features are cameras that take photos of items in the fridge, so shoppers can update their list of items.

LAS VEGAS — Like thousands of other journalists at the annual International Consumer Electronics Show, I’m always looking out for the next iPhone. Maybe I should start searching in the appliance section.

The ovens, refrigerators, and washing machines on display here get a little smarter every year. Not smart enough to change the world as the iPhone did. Not yet, anyway. But after seeing the latest offerings from Whirlpool and Samsung, I’m thinking it’s almost time to start taking computer-controlled appliances seriously.

Smart appliances usually resemble the home devices of old. But under the hood, the new machines are driven by microprocessors, stuffed with sensors and linked to the user through wireless Internet connections. For years, I’ve jeered at the idea. How smart do appliances need to be?

But many said the same thing about cellphones until 2007, when Apple Inc.’s design geniuses made smartphone lovers of us all. I suspect the same thing is now happening to appliances. After years of crude experimentation, companies have at last developed machines that might be worth paying for.

Whirlpool, for instance, has partnered with Amazon.com to create washing machines for clothes and dishes that will never run out of detergent. The machines keep track of how many loads they’ve run. Just as you’re starting to run low on cleaning supplies, a new batch shows up on your doorstep.

You can use a phone app to lock out the Whirlpool oven and dishwasher, preventing unauthorized use. You can tell the fridge to turn up the automatic icemaker when you’re having a party. Religious families can use a “Sabbath mode” to de-activate kitchen appliances during holy days. Or you can remotely manage a meal cooking in the oven. Run at 350 to bake the food, bump it up to broil for 15 minutes to brown it, then drop it into keep-warm mode till dinnertime.

With all their advanced features, the Whirlpool machines look little different from standard high-end appliances. But the radical look of the latest Samsung fridge had photographers lining up three deep on the trade show floor. It’s got a gargantuan flat-panel display, big enough to watch movies while you’re whipping up a nice risotto but even better suited to showing recipes and cooking videos from Club des Chefs, Samsung’s culinary website.

There’s an app to display the latest weather and traffic information and your daily appointment calendar. But best of all are the tools for keeping track of the household food supply. Every time you open the door of the Samsung fridge, three cameras photograph the interior, showing all your cans and cartons and bags. With the touchscreen you can drag and drop date icons onto every item, reminding you that the milk can be kept only three days while the pickles are good for at least a week.

These food photos are smartphone-accessible, of course, so you can glance at them during trips to the supermarket. Or you can stay at home and use the touchscreen to order food from two delivery services that have partnered with Samsung.

It’s all pretty remarkable, yet ultimately unnecessary. And kind of pricey, too. Samsung hasn’t released the pricing on its new fridge yet. But Whirlpool’s fancy oven will go for $2,000 and its fridge for $3,800. That’s a lot more than most of us will care to spend.

And yet, the research firm IHS predicts a massive increase in smart appliance sales. Dinesh Kithany, an IHS appliance analyst, said Americans bought about 276,000 networked appliances in 2014. But by 2020 Kithany expects about 24 million to be sold within the United States, and more than 470 million worldwide, the great majority in China. Now we’re talking a massive, iPhone-sized success.

Never mind the high cost of today’s smart appliances. For now, the technology is going first into the companies’ premium products. But the electronics that make them work are so cheap, they’ll soon be turning up at every price point, said another IHS analyst, Tom Morrod.

“You might not go shopping for one but you’ll end up taking one home,” Morrod said. It’s like 3-D television. Hardly anybody watches it, but the chips are so cheap that many manufacturers include it anyhow.

And unlike 3-D TV, connected appliances have myriad everyday applications. Stoves can remind us to switch them on or off; dishwashers or laundry machines can run at night when energy costs are lower; the fridge can monitor what’s inside and offer us the best recipe for turning it into a decent meal.

Those are just the things we can think of today, when hardly anybody uses smart appliances. Put them into a few million more homes, and we’ll probably find uses none of us can presently imagine.

Which, come to think of it, was exactly what happened with the iPhone.

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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