The Wired Fridge

Monday, August 20, 2012

For most families, the refrigerator is the focal point of the kitchen. It’s where we leave notes for one another, post photos we want to share, remind ourselves of schedule commitments and keep the all-important grocery list.

It was only natural that fridge manufacturers would see an opportunity here: Why not automate these functions to relieve the clutter of paper notes and magnets? While we’re at it, let’s add in capabilities to surf the Internet, listen to music, discover new recipes and keep a food inventory. Now you’ve got a “smart” family center.

Manufacturers including LG, Samsung and Whirlpool are making wired fridges, stocking them with a variety of capabilities to suit the needs of today’s families. Some of these models have built-in computers that have full hard drives included; others offer select applications. Their basic features include a touch screen, Wi-Fi connections and speakers.

Samsung calls its version the App Fridge, and it is available in two models. The App Fridge features a 20-centimetre Wi-Fi-supported LCD screen that gives users access to eight applications: AP, Calendar, Epicurious, Memos, Pandora, Photos, Twitter and WeatherBug.

Some of these apps – specifically Calendar, Memos and Photos – are the modern-day solution to kitchen magnets, as users can upload and organize photographs, file notes and keep schedules, and access it all with a simple touch. Epicurious provides a database of recipes, which gives users the opportunity to search either by keyword or ingredients.

Non-kitchen-related applications include AP, which provides news-surfing capabilities; WeatherBug, which offers the weather report; Twitter, which is a read-only version (no tweeting); and Pandora, which enables users to create and play their own radio stations (although stations cannot be created directly from the fridge; rather they must be added to the user’s account from a desktop, laptop or mobile app before they can be played from the fridge).

The LG Internet Refrigerator has a built-in computer that can be accessed through a 37-centimetre touch-screen LCD monitor that is mounted on the fridge door. Equipped with VCR and DVD ports, a microphone and speakers, the fridge enables users to watch TV, listen to MP3 music, make video phone calls, take and store digital photos, create message boards and surf the Internet. It also provides a food management system: Information about the contents of the fridge can be stored, enabling the owner to keep an inventory of what foods are in each section and how long they have been there. The built-in hard drive and modem make it easy to connect the fridge by simply running a phone connection into it.

While LG was the first to publicly introduce a wired fridge, in 2003, Electrolux had been toying with Web-enabled refrigerators dating back to 1999. These models focused on food management applications and never made it into stores. LG’s 2003 model was a flop. Whirlpool gave the computerized fridge a whirl in 2008. This revamped version gave owners the opportunity to hang a laptop, iPod deck or digital photo frame onto the appliance. No – or very few –takers on this model either.

In fact, even the latest and greatest wired fridges have been slow to take off in the marketplace. In part, that’s because the appliance industry is inherently one of the slower-moving industries in terms of advancements. In part, it’s because consumers just aren’t sure they need another computer in their house – let alone in the kitchen. Then there’s the fact that people tend to keep their refrigerators for over a decade, while computer technology changes every five minutes. How much maintenance will be required to keep that wired fridge up-to-date? Finally, don’t underestimate the hefty price tag on these electronic iceboxes: They can run twice the cost (or more) of a standard refrigerator.

Sources: gizmag, PCWorld, Sears Canada, TechCrunch, Wired