The New Intelligence

The New Intelligence

As the American home becomes increasingly automated, new technology has led to the growth of a host of 'smart products' that make the kitchen not just the heart of the home, but the brain, as well.

By Janice Anne Costa

All of which helps to explain why technology is suddenly the hottest issue around, with the new "intelligent products" taking the kitchen and the home by storm.

In fact, the home technology market totals some $15 billion, according to John Galante, publisher of TecHome Builder magazine. And, Galante notes, this number is growing some 9% annually, with more than 4,000 manufacturers of products covering everything from home entertainment and networking to control technology for lighting, climate, security and appliances.

Whole-home automation is becoming more than just a science fiction fantasy, and the kitchen, always viewed as the heart of the home, is now beginning to take charge as the home's intelligence center, as well. Mirroring the trend toward open home layouts where everything is connected, today's hottest high-tech products are connecting the home and its inhabitants in ways that go far beyond just physical space.

get smart

Another product that captured interest at the pavilion was the Storlogic Systems' Viz-etouch, a showroom point-of-sales device that allows consumers to pick a kitchen style, find product, receive a price breakdown and get financing options before heading to a designer.

Also a big hit at the K/BIS Techno-Color pavilion, the new 20/20 Design 6.0 version software program allows designers to create printouts of their customers' dream kitchen within 20 minutes, with on-screen displays so realistic, doors can even be opened to reveal shelves.

On the show floor, LG Electronics showed its smarts with the Living Network System: a wired, home network-based system that links such appliances as the internet, microwave oven and washer to one another via the internet refrigerator, thus allowing for communication among appliances. The Internet refrigerator not only chills food, it also acts as a TV, radio, Web Appliance, videophone, bulletin board, calendar and digital camera.

For those who like something a bit less high-tech looking, the new Amana Messenger Refrigerator looks like your friendly, neighborhood refrigerator  but with a twist. While it does everything you'd expect from your refrigerator, it also features a built-in voice memo function that not only allows users to record and receive messages at the touch of a button, it also alerts users to a variety of refrigerator functions, i.e. letting users know when it's time to change the water or air filter, pointing out when the refrigerator door has been accidentally left open, or announcing how long a power outage has lasted, so users don't have to guess whether food is safe to eat.

Intelligence is also becoming more prevalent in food preparation. To that end, Whirlpool Corp.'s Polara refrigerated range enables users to prepare meals up to one day ahead of time as well as warm and cool food without being home.

Likewise, Sharp's high-speed oven is pre-programmed to automatically cook different 200 foods and recipes  while dramatically reducing cooking time.

In addition, products like KitchenAid's Briva in-sink dishwasher with FlashDry technology, Bosch electric cooktop with mTwisT, Broan-NuTone's wall-mounted chimney hood, DCS 30" five-burner gas range, Sub-Zero glass door refrigerator, Samsung microwave oven that doubles as a camera, and Fisher & Paykel Aerotech oven and DishDraw dishwashing system were among the high-tech products showing their smarts at the recent K/BIS.

Driving Intelligence
Driving the "smart products" trend are several key factors, according to Alpharetta, GA-based George Ide, Smart House Digital Interiors, Inc., who spoke about Home Automation Trends at the recent K/BIS. Ide, who is on the board of directors for the Tech Home Division of the Consumer Electronics Association (formerly called the Home Automation and Networking Association), points to several changes in the American lifestyle that are adding fuel to the growing interest in technology and home automation.

Since September 11th, he notes, security has become a greater factor than ever for many Americans "People are more interested in staying home and being secure there," he noted, explaining that this drives the home security and home monitoring industry.

Additionally, he stated, "Working at home is a big trend right now. The home is becoming an extension of the office. It may not be where people work every day, but they are working from home a couple of days a week." This has, of course, created a growing interest in the home office, both from a design standpoint and a technology standpoint, with higher-speed computer hook-ups, video conferencing and other "connection-oriented" products becoming increasingly in demand.

As Ide noted, "People [who] are tele-commuting will want to connect on a virtual private network to their office so that they can get all of their information there, contact information, research information. You can work with an associate from home or have a video meeting."

Home schooling has become a pretty big industry as well. As Ide pointed out, "In 2000-2001, there were about 1.9 million kids home schooled, and that is a growing statistic. We've seen some building plans where the [consumer wants] a learning center that will be a home office for kids. It's kind of a nice area that is set up for crafts, and that has the computer, books and other things they can use in a complete learning environment so that they can do their homework and have some fun and be connected to the Internet, as well."

Of course technology is probably the biggest trend driving the home automation market right now, Ide asserted. This can be broken down into several categories. "The first is broadband Internet access. That is growing by leaps and bounds." In addition to the growing percentage of people who have Internet access, there are now "about 20% of people in the U.S. who have the ability to get cable, modem or DSL lines. It is growing in penetration. What it does is eliminate the 'World Wide Wait.' And, that drives along the home network, or the PC network in the home. It makes it so multiple PCs can now take advantage of that one high-speed access."

People are also looking for wireless connections, Ide noted, which gives them mobility and flexibility of location. "And," he added, "people like remote access."

Convergence is another technical trend that is impacting the market right now. "Things like the computer and telephone are coming together," Ides noted. "The computer can be used for Internet long distance. The television and computer are also converging together," an example of which would be Web TV, where users can search the Internet from the TV. He also cited TiVo devices where users can timeshift the actual programming that's coming in as an example of this. "What it is actually doing is putting it on a computer hard disk that's built right into the TiVo unit. You can press pause, and it will continue to store the live TV broadcast that's coming."

Likewise, computer and entertainment equipment are converging together, with DVDs being put into PCs so that users can watch on their computers.

Surround-Sound processers are converging with the computer, helping to drive the whole home entertainment category a perfect fit for kitchen and bath dealers. Convergence is a fairly good aspect of it. Lots-of people are putting them into family rooms.

Of course, one of the biggest concerns with home automation is that many builders, remodelers, designers and others in the industry simply aren't planning ahead.

As Ide noted, "About 30% of homes are not wiring their homes properly so they are not really prepared for all of this. Either they don't have enough wiring or they have the wrong type of wiring. Later on, it's hard to add [it] in if you're not remodeling or building, because you have to run wires through walls, and what's worse about it is there are unique wall finishes, such as distinct wallpaper, and there's no way you are going to match that. So it is really a bigger problem with retrofitting."

future trends
As for what the future holds, in a recent issue of USA Today, Kevin Maney states that "the next revolution" is not too far down the road. The newest technology will allow products to be implanted with tiny plastic tags containing a computer microchip and a minuscule antenna, which will allow things to connect with and communicate with other things, changing everything from shopping and cooking to identifying dangerous drug interactions.

The impact of such technology on the kitchen and bath market could be huge, as product-to-product communication creates a "smart network" that can simplify home functions like never before. For instance, a frozen dinner could transmit cooking instructions to a "reader" placed inside the microwave, telling the microwave how it should be cooked. A bottle of wine could electronically "see" what's in the refrigerator and communicate what food it works with best.

In the bathroom, drugs in a medicine cabinet could "talk" to each other and let the owner know if there's a combination that could cause a dangerous interaction.

In a home office, filing cabinets could sense with tagged documents are kept in which drawer, with this information communicated to the main computer so the user could always find essential files at a keystroke.

And this is just the beginning.
But, while this new technology is not just on the horizon much of it already exists  widespread consumer use will take some time perhaps a decade or more. To stay on top of the trends, kitchen and bath designers need to prepare now. KBDN