Monday, May 16, 2016

Applied Appliances

Big and Manual

Those big home appliances: the washer, the dryer, the refrigerator, the range and the dishwasher.  They seem such natural devices to connect to a home network and then out to the internet.  After all, they are big and stationary and plugged in and perform tasks that take significant time.  Would it not be great if, when connected, they did... what?

And that's the challenge: the use case.  There is not one that is truly compelling for any of these.  The manual nature of the tasks that these appliances help perform force us to be present at them, using them, monitoring them.  There is no robotic arm that will move the laundry from the washer to the drier and then fold your clothes and put them away for you.  The dishes still need to be loaded and then unloaded.  The same with the food in the refrigerator.  All of these things require us to be there and be doing.  The result is that it is just as easy (easier?) to press the buttons on the appliance as it is to reach into a pocket, open an app, wait for it to load and then do exactly. the. same. thing.

Searching for the Use Case

This not to say that many companies have tried, from Samsung and LG to Whirlpool and GE.  Most of the 'smart' implementation revolves around reminders and timers and monitoring.  The various apps lets you see the remaining time in your current load of laundry or dishes.  Or what temperature the roast has reached.  Some of the laundry apps will take it a step farther and offer recommendations for cycles based on the clothing labels or the stains that need to be removed.  But, again, is this easier than asking Siri how to get grass stains out?  I argue that it is not.

The challenge is that most of these devices are basically single task machines.  Your dishwasher cleans dishes.  That's it.  Your oven bakes things (roasts them as well if you're being pedantic, which I almost always am).  That's it.  You laundry machines clean and dry clothes.  That's it.  Sure, there's adjustments for different types of all of those things from pots and pans to whites and delicates.  But those adaptations are not big things.  They don't really need search capabilities or remote control.

The Cold Box

The exception to this might be the refrigerator.  At least in the suburban American home.  It has evolved from merely the box to preserve perishable food items into a message board and art gallery.  While it may not be the 'center piece of the kitchen' (that honor goes to the coffee machine in my home), it might be the 'information appliance of the kitchen'.  With that in mind, there are possibilities that work for the refrigerator that don't for other maj-apps (#whitegoodsindustrybuzzword).

It does not need a TV bolted to it, but it might be nice to have a tablet.  This allows for messages and pictures to live on the fridge without cluttering it up.  However, those manufacturers that offer this have price points that are more than a mid-line french-door with a mid-line 10" tablet glued to the front.  The result is that it prices it self out of the mass-premium market and into the full-on premium market and ends up competing with Viking and SubZero.  This also means a consumer who is looking for the best refrigerator as a refrigerator, not one that is a merely good refrigerator along with something that they were not looking for.

Maj-App + CPG = Ease

There is a way forward for these appliances, but it is one that will not happen merely from the appliance manufacturer front.  It's going to require partnerships across industries with the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) people and the clothing companies

What we all really want is a refrigerator that keeps a running tally of what is in it and the associated expiration dates.  We want a washer that will read the clothing for us and set the cycle accordingly.  An oven that knows the dish and how to cook it.  

For this to happen, the information needs to be encoded in the product being processed by the appliance.  As an example, as the milk passes through the fridge door, it shares what it is and how long it will be good.  Scales in the fridge keep track of how full the milk carton is.  But to do this is going to require more than a small barcode scanner and an internet connection.  It will need a full RFID tag that keeps track of more information than a standard barcode or QR code.  Furthermore, that information will need to be standardized so that a Whirlpool or a Viking can read it.  Then we need to do it all again for clothes and washing machines.

All of this will take time.  But the ground work is being put in place today and it will happen.  Then all we'll need to keep track of are the left overs.


  1. What an article for "Applied Appliances". I am really happy to read this post regarding Applied Appliances. Thank You!

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I see that what you are calling appliances and what I'm calling appliances are a bit different. I'm glad that you enjoyed it despite that.

  2. Great article. Let me add something about the oevn. How would an oven know what you're cooking in it? Well, the people at June oven are using cameras with image processing!

    1. That's an interesting oven. I'm a little reserved about the camera properly identifying the things I stick in the oven, but that may have more to do with my prep work than with the oven itself. I see a potential for crowd sourcing the identification as well. Maybe have people who have the app worldwide get pinged when something unidentifiable (the MSD usually calls it 'chicken stuff') and then help the oven be telling it what it has taken a picture of.

      What I really want to happen is for the Monsanto people to get around to putting an RFID tag into the DNA of their plants and animals (maybe just the plants and have it transfer over to the animals via feed?). Then the oven would be able to identify the stock materials and be able to really know how to cook it and the entire history of every grain of flour. And it combines two big boogie men: Big Data and GMO foods. Bring on SkyNet and the Zombie Apocalypse!