Last updated: May 5, 2012 12:06 am

The fridge to make you slim

Smart technology – wireless control, energy-saving features and more – is putting the ‘app’ in domestic appliances

Whether helping households to trim their energy consumption, or allowing washing machines to be controlled remotely by iPhones, it has been hard to avoid the notion of the “smart” appliance at recent technology fairs.

Such technology’s claim to smartness rests on the use of mobile technology and apps to allow users to control them from outside their houses. Another common shared feature is the ability to predict the needs of the user, meaning household chores can become more automated.

Yet while manufacturers such as LG and Samsung have already unveiled a comprehensive range of smart appliances, for the vast majority of consumers such technology remains an alien concept.

While the installation costs of smart products are generally not significantly higher than their lower tech cousins, high purchase prices place them out of reach for regular consumers. At this stage of development, many of them are more niche items than white goods.

ABI Research expects annual shipments of smart appliances to exceed 24m units by 2017 as prices come down and consumers become more accustomed to the idea of having high-tech gadgetry in the home.

Nest Learning Thermostat

Nest Learning Thermostat, $249,

The Nest home learning thermostat, designed by Tony Fadell, a former head of iPhone and iPod hardware development at Apple, is an example of smart technology that appeals to consumers by stressing the amount of money that it can save the average household in energy bills.

The product remembers at what times of the day, and in what parts of a house, changes to heating levels are made. This allows the thermostat to begin second-guessing the areas of a property that are used most, and when people are home, so that energy bills can be reduced in a way that is tailor-made to the user.

Nest claims that the system, which costs about $250, can save on average $520 in its first three years of use, based on an average annual US household energy bill of $2,200.

As rising energy prices make consumers more conscious of their usage, the rise of home energy management systems – technology that allows users to monitor and remotely control their consumption – is expected to trigger subsequent demand for smart household appliances.

However, according to ABI analyst Craig Foster, while such systems are expected to see a more than 10-fold increase in usage globally in the next five years, the market is more likely to be driven by appliance innovation than by utilities companies, who have so far failed to raise awareness of the technology among the general public.

Many of these examples are found in the kitchen, with smart technology allowing ovens to be heated remotely, meaning excess use can be trimmed.

The Aga Total Control cooker

The Aga Total Control cooker, from £9,895,

The Aga cooker, an often desired appliance but one that historically has needed to be heated for large parts of the day, has been updated with a touchscreen to time when the oven heats up. The Aga Total Control, which costs just under £10,000, also features the near-obligatory iPhone app to allow remote control.

At this year’s CES technology fair in Las Vegas LG unveiled its Smart Fridge, which combines energy-efficient features with what effectively amounts to a kitchen PA, but at a price of about £2,000 is not expected to appeal to the mass market.

Using an internet connection, an LCD touchscreen interface with voice recognition, and a monitoring system that lets you know when the yogurts are running low, the user can be kept up to date 24 hours a day about the state and contents of their fridge.

Food shopping can be done using the control panel, which creates personalised lists based on an inventory built by scanning product barcodes, a feature that LG claims will eliminate the hassle of scrawling a list with a pencil. Based on the barcodes the fridge will also remember expiry dates.

Such features, depending on the audience, may appear either ingenious or superfluous. But with the LG fridge’s “health manager” feature, what once seemed a shiny household appliance begins to veer into the territory of a lifestyle coach.

After the owner punches in their age, gender, weight and other personal details, their fridge will begin to recommend meal plans and recipes to keep them in shape. If that was not enough, after recommending what to eat, the fridge can send the correct cooking settings to an oven.

Samsung LCD Refrigerator

Samsung LCD Refrigerator, from $2,699,

The trend of appliances containing digital recipes and instructions is continued with Gorenje’s iChef+, which uses a touchscreen to guide the user through various inbuilt recipes.

Samsung’s LCD fridge meanwhile allows you to send tweets from its screen, and post electronic memos for others, rather than old-fashioned yellow sticky notes. It also allows the use of various food-related apps, accessed from the touchscreen. One of these, the fridge’s Epicurious app, allows the user to search for recipes by ingredient key words, meaning the scraps in an almost empty fridge can be worked into something edible.

Samsung has also this year unveiled a smart washing machine, using wireless technology to allow users to control their wash remotely, sending alerts to a smartphone application to inform them when a load is ready.

While many of these touchscreen and iPhone controlled devices revel in technological complexity, the Magimix Vision Toaster is a far simpler affair, grounded in the promise of not burning your toast.

Magimix Vision toaster

Magimix Vision toaster, £160,

Claiming to be the world’s first transparent toaster, the Magimix, costing £160, has double-insulated clear glass sides, meaning the user can monitor their crumpets as they brown, reducing the risk of burning.

Its makers have claimed that the deceptively simple idea, which took 15 years to develop, has been greeted with popular frenzy as consumers said goodbye to charred breakfasts.

As smart appliances become more popular, their designers should take heed of the simplicity and affordability of the Magimix toaster. Sticking a touchscreen or iPhone link onto a conventional product is not a sure-fire guarantee of success.

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