What Should a Smart Appliance Actually Do?
Just being connected isn't good enough. Your appliances need to be connected in the right way.
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Over the past couple decades, smart home tech has gradually infiltrated our homes, promising to make all your devices available at the flick of a finger from anywhere in the world. It has connected everything from garage doors and smoke alarms to light bulbs and air conditioners, and a new wave of hubs and whole-home apps are rising up to make the process of managing all these devices painless.
But for all the promise of the smart home, there’s one crucial, everyday component that has yet to be meaningfully connected: our large appliances.
Many manufacturers offer so-called “smart appliances.” Samsung has a fridge that can stream music and suggest dinner recipes. LG SmartThinq washing machines can download stain-specific customized cleaning cycles. The Korean giant even has fridges, laundry machines, and ovens that you can chat with via text messages.
If these examples sound like gimmicks, that's because they are. Sorry, Samsung—fridges don’t need built-in TVs. LG, your washers and dryers don’t need touchscreens. Smart appliances don't need to be complex—they just need to simplify your life. But to get those benefits, your appliances need to be connected in the right way.
“We don't want to get into the habit of just connecting for connecting's sake, or just saying it’s smart just to call it smart,” said John Ouseph, who leads smart appliance development for GE Appliance.
Ouseph isn't alone in that sentiment—we spoke with other industry insiders, and they all agree. Smart appliances need to address the little things, problems as small as forgetting to take your clothes out of the washer. They need to make themselves easier to use and dispose of maddeningly complex user interfaces. They need to be easier to maintain and repair. And they need to communicate with one another, and even learn from how we use them.
Fix the Little Things
Imagine you've just finished dinner and gone out to walk the dog. You get a few blocks down the road and suddenly ask yourself, “Uh oh, did I remember to turn the oven off?”
In an ideal world, all you'd need to do is pull out your phone and open an app to find out. If the oven is on, you could turn it off with a flick of your finger. Better still, the app could recognize that you've left the house and send you a notification before the thought even crosses your mind.
Trivial? Perhaps. But it's just one little example of a common headache that a smart oven can cure. Washers, dryers, and dishwashers have roles to play, too.
“As you go appliance by appliance, I think there are interesting use cases in each one that are very sort of 'mother and apple pie,'” said Alex Hawkinson, CEO of smart home startup SmartThings.
Hawkinson spoke to the potential inherent in nearly every appliance category. Your dishwasher could run in the middle of the night, when electricity is often in lower demand. You could receive a notification from your oven, letting you know your cookies are done. Your washer could tell you when you’re low on detergent and even order a new bottle of your favorite brand from your preferred retailer.
Then there are the obvious safety benefits. “Dryers are the most common source of fire in the U.S. right now, so say goodbye to that,” Hawkinson said. Built-in sensors could detect a fire—or the potential for fire—and trigger the appropriate steps to prevent disaster. The same tech could be implemented in ovens, while dishwashers and washing machines could use a similar feature to prevent leaks.
Watch, Talk, and Learn
Devices that talk to you are great, but the most exciting benefits of smart home tech come from devices that can talk to each other. For instance, when a smart water heater finishes a heating cycle, it could signal your washer to let it know that if it’s ready to run a hot water cycle, now's the time to do it.
Though this particular scenario isn't yet a reality, the “Works with Nest” program already allows for some machine-to-machine communication with select Whirlpool appliances.
“Our ‘Works with Nest’ Washer and Dryer pair uses the Nest API to help save consumers energy and keeps their laundry fresh [...] without asking the consumer to think about anything,” said Brett Dibkey, Whirlpool’s VP and General Manager of Integrated Business Units.
These products know whether you're home or away by “talking” to your Nest thermostat, which keeps tabs on your location to intelligently heat and cool your home. If they know you're out of the house, the Whirlpool machines will default to longer washing and drying cycles to save energy. It's a smart bit of synergy between two very different appliances.
But even machine-to-machine communication has to make sense. After all, what is a water heater going to say to an oven?
“I think that’s where it’s experimental and the industry hasn't worked it all out,” said Mike Soucie, co-founder of smart home startup Revolv, which was acquired by Nest just last week.
Beyond simple stimulus response, smart appliances should also learn from repeated behavior. By accumulating data on water usage over time, for example, your water heater could learn to stop wastefully trying to maintain a constant supply of hot water and gradually lower your energy costs—potentially to a significant degree.
“A learning algorithm can be: I know that on weekdays you use the showers from 7 to 8,” Ouseph said. “And then you don't really use hot water again until 4 o'clock when everyone comes back home.”
Call the Doctor
If your appliances are connected, they should be able to know when they’re breaking down and call for help. In the future, that sort of self-reporting behavior will be par for the course.
“It’s super inconvenient today when these things break down,” said SmartThings CEO Hawkinson. He thinks future smart appliances will have ways of not only alerting the manufacturer and user when problems occur, but also predicting malfunctions before they even happen.
Some of these functions already exist. Many of LG's appliances can self-diagnose by playing a series of tones that can be decoded by a call center or smartphone app. The system feels decidedly retro in our world of cloud computing, recalling pay phone phreaking, but for many users it's probably more intuitive than setting up a WiFi connection on a washing machine. GE's Brillion oven, meanwhile, builds self-diagnosis into its companion smartphone app.
“We can measure certain things that we think are critical to the operation of a wall oven, watch those over the course of time, and then be predictive,” said Ouseph. The Brillion oven can already alert you to potential problems and provide you with a service number to call, but you can easily imagine it one day scheduling the service for you.
Simplify the UI
We all want simpler user interfaces. It’s part of what made the Nest thermostat such a success, and manufacturers are now well aware that they can capitalize on consumers' desire for clutter-free UIs. Just last month, Whirlpool ditched the dial on one of its new washers, opting for a decision tree driven primarily by the kind of articles you're washing.
Some have gone so far as to suggest removing physical controls entirely, most likely in favor of an app-based approach. “We've had a lot of discussion and debate internally about whether there’s a need for a front-facing interface for a lot of these appliances,” said Revolv’s Mike Soucie.
But the lack of a traditional interface could frustrate some users. A better solution might be to design a simpler, more intuitive physical interface and relegate more complex operations to a companion app, where they would be easier to use.
Take the GE Brillion oven: If you want to change the temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius on the oven itself, you have to drill down through multiple menus to find the right setting. But with the Brillion app, you can much more easily pull up and adjust the exact option you need.
Smartphone apps let users drill down into as much detail as they want, without cluttering a device's front panel. Still, it's unclear whether consumers would accept appliances without a physical interface, or even ones that relocate some advanced options to a companion app.
The Appliances of the Future
Thanks to some recent moves in the greater smart home market, truly smart appliances might arrive sooner than you'd think.
When Samsung acquired SmartThings earlier this summer, we got a glimpse at how major manufacturers could more intelligently integrate smart tech into their historically dumb machines. In addition to a hub that unifies third-party smart devices, SmartThings produces its own sensors, which can help users keep tabs on their homes. If those sensors were built into Samsung's appliances, it would open up countless possibilities for advanced control.
When we asked SmartThings CEO Hawkinson whether his still-independent company's products would be integrated into Samsung’s own line of home appliances, he all but confirmed it.
“I would be deeply surprised if that didn't happen,” he said.
As for GE and Whirlpool, both companies have hinted that there's more to come for smart appliances. “We have a strategy to get all of our appliances connected,” said Ouseph.
Part of that strategy will likely involve smartening up existing “dumb” GE appliances with special add-on modules. In fact, the company has already explored this option with the Green Bean Maker Module, a hacker-friendly gadget that can interface with select GE appliances. Enterprising programmers can use it to program text message notifications, remote control interfaces, and more.
Whirlpool's Brett Dibkey, meanwhile, emphasized his company's new partnership with Nest. The Google subsidiary gained significant smart home clout when it acquired Revolv, and it's reasonable to assume that it will use Revolv's vast knowledge of smart product integration to bolster the existing Works with Nest program.
We’re still a long way off from Jetsons-style home automation, but if companies like SmartThings and Nest can help usher these mundane appliances into the connected age, the possibilities may be surprisingly far-reaching.
The key will be making sure that all of these competing appliances can understand and work intelligently with one another. Big appliances are big purchases, and their long lifespans—compared to consumer gadgets like smartphones and laptops—can dramatically slow the pace of technological evolution. If we want the dream of the connected home to become a reality before we're all old and grey, collaboration needs to happen now.