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Smart, Yet Simple, Appliances

  Months before the new millennium began, product designers at GE Appliances in Louisville were putting the finishing touches on kitchen appliances for the future. Like other manufacturers, GE managers know the consumer of 2000 and beyond wants products that are easy to take care of, responsive to each person’s needs and tastes, and smart yet simple to use.

  GE’s response is its Advantium oven, which uses light rather than microwaves to automatically cook more than 80 dishes, turning out a 12-ounce sirloin steak in nine minutes; a baked potato in six; and a plate of squash in just two.

  “Smart” appliances like that have broad appeal with busy Kentuckians, says Merrell Grant, a GE product manager, who adds that the oven is easy to use.

  Other appliances for the new century:

· Makers of whirlpool baths are on the verge of introducing tubs that sense the tension in the bather’s muscles and, in response, spray massaging jets of water in that direction.

· At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, employees get their morning caffeine from a gizmo that senses from a bar code in their coffee cups whether they prefer decaf or latte, and then dispenses the proper brew.

· Appliance manufacturers are working on a refrigerator with a built-in computer to scan bar codes on refrigerated products that need replacing. The computer might even notify the local grocery store, which could deliver milk and eggs right to your kitchen.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mark Johansen, a product manager for Kohler, a Wisconsin company that makes faucets, foresees a kitchen faucet that can interpret the bacteria levels in the water that flows through it-and automatically purify the liquid without relying on the carbon filters that come with today’s filtration systems.

  Jacuzzi already offers a shower that includes a TV and VCR for the bather’s viewing pleasure.

  And as more people set up shop in home offices, predicts Washington, D.C., futurist Joseph Coates, state-of-the-art wiring will become standard in new homes.

  “Imagine if you could move into a house and anything you might want to plug into the wall now or in the next 10 years is all accommodated.”

  Still, most homebuilders agree they don’t expect too many people to be living in a home like George Jetson’s any time soon. People in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, they say, can use computers but don’t want to have to read thick manuals to learn how to program their lights to come on at night.

  A survey of 24 industry leaders on housing trends reveals that consumers want technology that makes sense but could care less about devices that switch on appliances from remote locations.
The survey was conducted by the Chicago marketing firm Dragonette for the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

  Buyers don’t want costly, complicated controls that perform needless functions like opening the blinds, notes Randy Luther, vice president for research and development at Centex Homes. Rather, he says, homeowners over the next few years will warm to simpler, more practical technology that might, for example, offer one switch that will turn off all the lights, set back the thermostat, and activate the burglar alarm when the family turns in for the night.

  Minnesota-based futurist Hank Lederer talks of a future home wired to unlock doors or turn on lights when it senses the approaching owner, who may be wearing a special wristwatch or ring that triggers the action. And while he says similar technology is already available, it’s “too complicated for the little benefit you get.” He advises appliance manufacturers to make sure their ovens aren’t too much smarter than the owners who have to figure out how to program
them.

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