Smart appliances are evolving from sci-fi concept to retail offering this year, with new showroom models that can send a text message when your clothes are dry or notify you when a power outage knocks out your fridge.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, appliance manufacturers Whirlpool and LG are unveiling new washers, dryers and refrigerators that connect with their owner's smartphones or tablets through home-based wi-fi networks, letting them know when to change filters, schedule maintenance or the cheapest time of day to wash a load of clothes.
"We're not looking at having the fridge tweet to you, but it can send e-mails or SMS," said Warwick Stirling, Whirlpool global director of energy and sustainability. "We're trying to focus on ways to make tasks easier and simpler, making processes more efficient rather than more gadget-y or gizmo-y."
Stirling said the devices will be available for sale in March under its "Sixth Sense Live" brand. Whirlpool's new Bluetooth-capable CoolVox refrigerator lets consumers play music through the fridge using an app.
This convenience comes at a price. A Whirlpool washer/dryer combo with smart connectivity costs $3,600, compared to under $1,000 for entry-level models. While appliance and electronics makers believe consumers will go for convenience over cost, some analysts are skeptical that the public is ready for tweeting fridges or remote controlled vacuums.
"From an appliance standpoint, they are getting there, but it's still pretty early," said Neil Strother, a senior analyst at Boulder-based Pike Research.
He says there are several big obstacles to consumers jumping from smartphones to smart appliances. They are still 50 to 100 percent more costly that "non-smart" appliances and manufacturers still haven't agreed on a common household communications platform that would help integrate stereo/TV/computer systems with kitchens and laundries, for example.
Last week, Microsoft purchased R2, a company that makes a Xbox-like controller that attempts to do just that.
But perhaps most importantly, Strother says, overall energy prices are predicted to remain stable or go down in the next few decades. That means a too-expensive, energy-miser appliance may not pay off over the long run (see electric cars).
NEWS: The Internet is Gassy Despite a relative glut of inexpensive energy in the United States, some utilities are hoping new smart appliances will play a role in a bigger goal of reducing overall energy demand and the carbon footprint that accompanies it.
Ratepayers in Chicago, California, Texas and other parts of the country are already seeing electricity prices change hourly, meaning that a high-tech washer, for example, could clean clothes more cheaply at night than during the afternoon. Some utilities are developing smartphone apps to help ratepayers regulate their heating and cooling systems remotely as well.
"Everybody in the utility industry seems to be looking at more technology which will help the customer understand their energy use and modify it," said Ron Bilodeau, project manager at NV Energy in Nevada.
Retail analysts like Strother expect that smart appliances, such as the ones debuting at CES, will be purchased by high-end luxury consumers and tech geeks, the usual early adopters of technologically advanced consumer products.
Even Whirlpool's Warwick admits that he doesn't expect to be selling lots of these appliances until the per unit price comes down and there's greater integration among the power utilities, appliance makers and consumers themselves.