The Intelligence of the Smart Home Appliance
While some of us are still trying to wrap our minds around the best use of the ubiquitous "smart phone" that has become an essential device for even the least tech-oriented individual, the Internet continues to revolutionize the way that we communicate, work, and live.
The Internet of Things
The concept of "smart" or Internet-connected home appliances dates back a couple of decades, but as the technological takeover continues, the functions of these high-tech home appliances have increased to a level that, while not exactly up to par with that of the titular family from the well-known futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, are certainly space-age enough to impress those of us who weren't born with the Internet in our pockets.
That said, in 2014, the major manufacturers of smart appliances took quite a few hard jabs from tech pundits. Jacob Kastrenakes of "The Verge," even wrote a piece called "The Dumb State of the Smart Home," essentially calling out the manufacturers for their focus on surface-level features that aren't actually particularly useful to the average consumer.
One of Kastrenakes's main critiques of smart home appliances is the fact that they typically can't communicate with each other at all if they aren't manufactured by the same company, and he's far from alone in this observation. Throughout 2014, commentators repeatedly decried the shortsighted lack of interoperability between smart appliances.
It's all part of a vision of smart appliances and other Internet capable devices known as the "Internet of Things." The idea here is that, for an appliance to be truly "smart," it needs to be connected to the Internet and to be able to communicate with other devices including other appliances as well as things like smart phones and tablets.
The Internet is no longer merely a nebulous web of information that we can tap into using our glowing screens. Instead, it is becoming integrated into the day-to-day physical objects we all use in our lives. Smart appliances will play a key role in this transformation.
From Concept to Reality
In order for the "Internet of Things" to truly become a reality, it will be necessary to bridge the gap in communication and ultimately allow appliances of all kinds to share information and take orders from a central app-based control panel. To fill this need, third party tech companies including ZigBee and Z-Wave have sprung up.
In layman's terms, these tech startups aim to create a more or less universal language that all smart home appliances can speak. This standardization is considered essential by many to the advancement of smart appliance technology, but Mark Walters, a chairman at Z-Wave, believes that competition will stand in the way here and that it will be virtually impossible for one communications protocol to become the standard in the industry.
Tobin Richardson, ZigBee's CEO, disagrees. He thinks the industry will eventually settle on a single protocol that will work with most, if not all, smart appliances on the market.
Only time will tell who's right, but one thing is for sure: as long as smart appliance manufacturers fall short of The Jetsons ideal, consumers and reviewers will continue to want more.
Where The Technology Stands
It's a time of great advancement in technology, but also a lot of misapplication of the technology that already exists in the smart appliance world. As it stands, the smart home appliances market is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the leading manufacturers seem to have the right idea and are moving towards a technology that is actually useful and easy-to-use for the consumer, while others still seem stuck on developing impractical features with dubious use value and sub-par mobile apps.
GE got out of the gate a little faster than some of its competitors with a smart appliance control app called Brillion that is compatible with both iPhones and Android devices. The app was available for consumers beginning in 2014, but it seems that GE might have jumped the gun a bit.
Only their line of wall-mounted ovens was compatible with the app at the time of its launch. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2015, GE announced that the rest of their appliances, including refrigerators, water heaters, dishwashers, and washers and dryers, would be released in Brillion-compatible versions later in 2015.
LG wasn't far behind in the smart home appliance game with its announcement of the HomeChat service at 2014's CES, and they expanded their line at the 2015 show with announcements for an expansion to include smart air-conditioners, smart audio systems, smart refrigerators, and smart washers and dryers, all compatible with their HomeChat app.
Samsung, not exactly a company known for being left behind in the technology department, nevertheless lagged when it came to the mobile app aspect of their smart appliances line. That is, until the summer of 2014. In August, Samsung purchased SmartThings, a brand spanking new smart home automation company.
Also at CES 2015, Samsung dropped a 2 ton bombshell on its competitors
First, 90% of Samsung's devices will be Internet enabled by the year 2017, with the remaining 10%, including appliances, becoming Internet enabled by 2020. Even more importantly, they will all run through Samsung's newly purchased SmartThings platform.
Perhaps as a direct challenge to competitors, Samsung's CEO and president Boo-Kuen Yoon, speaking at the opening keynotes, boldly proclaimed that the Internet of things "is not science fiction anymore. It's science fact." Is Yoon right? Perhaps not quite yet.
Smart Appliances So Far
Let's take a look at some of the most highly sought-after smart appliances and where their technology stands today.
Ovens and ranges are one category of appliances where manufacturers can't seem to quite agree on the definition of "smart". Australia-based Breville, for example, offers a small, countertop convection oven that adjusts its own heating elements based on various presets. Although the name of the oven is, quite literally, "Smart Oven," there's really nothing here that puts this device in the "smart" category when it comes to connectivity.
Most would agree that Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity, at a minimum, are requirements for an appliance to be truly "smart" these days, and some of the largest electronics and appliance manufacturers in the world including Samsung and GE have their own lines of Wi-Fi capable ovens and ranges. And, not only can you control and monitor your oven from home via your Wi-Fi connection, but you can also use your smart phone to get the same level of interaction while you're out.
The GE app is simple to use yet still offers a high level of precise control over your oven from quite literally anywhere in the world. You can start your oven preheating while on your way home from the grocery store, set different temperatures for your upper and lower ovens, set timers to shut the oven off at the end of a baking cycle, and even turn off your oven if you've accidentally left it on, all from a mobile app.
In another eye-catching development at CES, California-based appliance manufacturer Dacor unveiled its Discovery line of Wi-Fi connected convection ovens. These wall-mounted units feature a touchscreen graphic interface that allows you to download apps and recipes, and plan out your cooking right on the surface of the oven.
Can you imagine a refrigerator that can let you know when you are running low on milk? That's exactly the vision at LG with its line of Wi-Fi capable fridges. They feature interior cameras, so you can always see what's inside, even when you're out shopping. Other features include a visual display where you can upload pictures or artwork to decorate the exterior of your fridge, and a Smart Saving feature that reduces the refrigerator's energy consumption when no one is at home. You can even keep track of the food stocked in your refrigerator using the on-fridge display, and sync the information to your smart phone to make shopping a snap.
So far, Samsung's line of Wi-Fi connected refrigerators seems to be a little less comprehensive when it comes to features. A touchscreen LCD display features prominently on the refrigerator door, and you can control many of the fridge's settings from here. You can also download recipes and apps and even browse the web. The line also features FlexZone drawers that store drinks, snacks, wine, and meat and fish at different temperatures.
While some observers noted that GE's display at CES was smaller in 2015, it didn't stop them from showcasing their line of smart appliances to be unveiled over the course of the year, including smart fridges marketed under the name Profile, set to launch in April. You can expect an external LCD display, high-temperature alerts to prevent food spoilage, text reminders to change your water filter, and even the ability to remotely check whether your ice trays are filled.
Washers and Dryers
With up to 15% of the average home's energy bill going to pay for the operation of a dryer, inserting some smart home technology into the laundry room is certainly an excellent way to save money and go green.
At 2015's CES, Whirlpool announced a line of washers and dryers compatible with the popular Nest thermostat. The laundry devices and thermostat can communicate with each other, with the Nest sharing information about energy rates in order to run your washer and dryer at the least expensive times.
By communicating with Nest, you can reduce the heat in the dryer to lower energy usage while you're out and unlikely to need your laundry right away, or you can increase the heat, and thus drying the clothes faster, when you're at home. Whirlpool's line of smart washers and dryers are also controllable through a mobile app.
LG also had big news at CES 2015, announcing a new line of smart washers and dryers that feature front-loading units with Wi-Fi connectivity and other innovations. The washing machine features the brand-new TWIN Wash System that provides a second mini washer under the main washing machine. This allows you to wash two different loads with different laundering requirements at the same time.
By connecting your machines to LG's HomeChat control app, you can upload washing and drying cycles, get alerts when your laundry is ready, and control your washer and dryer while you're away from home.
GE's smart laundry offerings, also under the Profile umbrella like its smart refrigerator, won't be rolling out until May 2015. The manufacturer did preview the units at CES 2015, and it's clear that there will be some interesting features here. The optional SmartDispense reservoir will keep tabs on how much detergent you have left, and you will also be able to track laundry cycles through a mobile app. You can see how much time is left on a washing cycle, or prolong a drying cycle in order to prevent wrinkles in your clothes.
Samsung is a little bit behind with their smart washer and dryer development. While they did unveil a washer with a built-in pre-treating sink at CES this year, the machine won't be available on the market until sometime in the third quarter, and details on the washer/dryer pair's Wi-Fi abilities are scarce.
It may surprise you to know that water heaters, like dryers, are some of the biggest energy consumers in our homes. Over 17% of the average home's energy costs go to paying for hot water.
While it seems obvious that consumers would be clamoring for smart water heater options, the market here is still a bit sparse. A few ambitious tech startups are working on hot water heater controllers that will offer Internet connectivity, but nothing's on the market yet.
GE will be releasing a tweaked version of its 50 gallon GeoSpring water heater as well as an upgraded 80 gallon version, both with Wi-Fi features. Unfortunately, so far they've been mum about the specific options that will be available with these smart water heaters or smart home thermostats.
While water heaters are certainly a prime target for smart technology considering the potential cost and energy savings, it looks like, for now at least, the major manufacturers are focusing on the somewhat more eye-catching kitchen appliances.
The Future Of the Internet of Things
While most of the recently added smart appliance bells and whistles would have astounded consumers even a decade or so ago, there's clearly a long way to go before we reach the true ideal of the Internet of Things. So what will the future bring for smart appliances?
One cutting-edge site of development is in the area of safety. In the United States, dryers are the most common cause of house fires. These fires could be prevented by fitting smart dryers with fire sensors that would immediately shut off the machine in case of danger and could even alert the fire department in the worst-case scenario. Ovens could benefit from the same technology, and washing machines, dishwashers, and hot water heaters could be fitted with flood sensors.
Appliance repairs could also be revolutionized by Wi-Fi connectivity. In fact, some manufacturers are already building in self-diagnosis tools to alert when a problem is detected. Maintenance reminder features could help keep things like cleaning and filter changes running smoothly.
While various usability and safety features on the individual appliances will certainly continue to drive consumer interest in smart appliances, the real future of the market will be determined by how quickly the industry is able to settle on standard protocols for communication between the smart appliances and between the appliances and the smart electricity grid. There were no doubt be more stumbling blocks along the way, but the life of George and Jane Jetson doesn't seem so unattainable after seeing some of the wow-worthy appliances that were released at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.