Consumer Electronics Show: Kenmore smartens up

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Electronics companies at the Consumer Electronics Show for years have been showing off prototypes of fanciful broadband-enabled refrigerators with built-in flat screens that can play video or serve as a family bulletin board (‘Mom, we need more orange juice’). But the appliance makers that have descended upon this week’s show in Las Vegas are demonstrating less sexy but far more practical uses of connectivity: saving energy, simplifying maintenance and providing better user interfaces.

A good example comes from Sears’ Kenmore division, which (like many appliance companies) made its first appearance at CES this year. The company introduced its Kenmore Connect feature on high-end washers and dryers in October to help people fix a malfunctioning appliance without having to wait (and pay) for a technician to visit. It’s not exactly the highest of high-tech approaches: Each washer and dryer can gather diagnostic data electronically, but to transmit it to Kenmore the owner has to call a customer service line, press a button on the machine and hold their phone close enough for the noisy data pulse to be understood by a computer on the other end of the line.

Yet that sort of remote diagnostic help is something consumers have been coveting for some time, said Betsy Owens, vice president of Kenmore. The company showed off a whole range of appliances -- most still in prototype form, with availability projected for some time in 2012 -- with the Kenmore Connect feature.

The company is expanding the feature to enable remote control of some functions -- for example, the ability to preheat an oven via the Internet, and to be notified by text message when it’s ready. It also is building in the capability to monitor and manage energy use -- for example, by tracking the number of times the refrigerator door is opened. Owens said the company also planned to enable the devices to connect directly to a home network or home control system via Wi-Fi, USB or similar technology.


Connected appliances have been enabled in part by manufacturers settling on a handful of standards for devices to talk to the network and to each other, and in part by the emergence of smart grid technology to manage energy use. But another factor is the proliferation of smart phones, said Ellen Glassman, Kenmore’s vice president of design. That’s because it’s introduced consumers to the idea of controlling devices in their home with a phone or a tablet.

The prototypes had a limited number of bells and whistles, in part because there’s not a lot one can do remotely with a refrigerator or a dishwasher. (LG is going a bit further, showing an oven that can download recipes and a refrigerator that can send shopping lists via text and keep track of the expiration dates of the food it’s storing.) There’s also the risk of loading up the devices with a bunch of capabilities people don’t understand. ‘To a certain degree we are ahead of consumers’ on some functions, Owens conceded.

Just by adding connectivity to their appliances, however, manufacturers open the door for other innovators to develop unexpected new uses. As Owens noted, ‘This is just a very fast-moving landscape.’


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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.