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No More Ruined Roasts

Of all the cool new technology on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past January, the last thing I expected to stumble upon was a time machine.
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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Smart Appliances

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All of the capabilities that attendees saw Sub-Zero products demonstrate at Control4’s CES booth (top) have been available to repair technicians for years. The port by which the Sub-Zero technicians accessed that information is the same portal through which Control4 now taps into the appliances, by way of a relatively simple ZigBee adapter. Specifically, this wine refrigerator can sound an alarm if its door has been left ajar for a specified length of time.

Of all the cool new technology on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this past January, the last thing I expected to stumble upon was a time machine. But in one particularly surreal moment on the show floor, I could have sworn I stepped straight into a rift in the space-time continuum.

My task was simple enough: scope out the latest smart appliances at the show and gauge their applicability for the CEDIA channel. And no, it wasn’t merely the déjà vu of hearing about smart appliances themselves that led to my temporal discombobulating–although, seriously, how many years now have we been teased with the prospect of connected refrigerators equipped with touchscreen controls that we never asked for to begin with? No, what sent my mind reeling back to the years of GeoCities, Usenet, and AOL installation discs in the mail were the screeching dial-up modem tones coming out of the washing machine at Kenmore’s booth.

“What’s that about?” I asked. The lovely Kenmore rep explained to me that what I was hearing was Kenmore Connect, and the way it works is retro-tastically simple, except not really: if something goes wrong with your Kenmore washer or dryer, simply get tech support on the phone, power your appliance down, press a sequence of buttons, hold your phone’s mouthpiece up to the appliance, and that lovely series of clonking, squealing tones–transmitted via the magic of voice telephony, I tell you!–will let the tech on the other end of the line diagnose your problem, lickety split.

I waited a few beats for the CompuServe welcome screen to pop up, and when it didn’t, the only question I could think to ask, through stifled giggles, was this: “Why not just upload the diagnostics data via the internet?”

Apparently that bit of forward-thinking wizardry is in the works, but won’t be available in this year’s models. To be fair, though, many of the appliances on display at the Kenmore booth were network connected, via Wi-Fi. A few even boasted touchscreen LCD displays and smart phone monitoring, so you can control your appliances on the go, or even leave the oven running while you run errands and receive a text message when the turkey is fully cooked. Because, yeah, that sounds like a safe idea.

Ideas That Made More Sense

Honestly, the only truly compelling connected technology on display at the Kenmore booth was the smart grid integration for laundry appliances and refrigerators, designed to allow you to better monitor energy usage and even schedule events like ice-making and clothes-drying at more economical times.

That same smart grid integration is also at the heart of LG’s THINQ line of appliances, and the company is promising a more centralized approach. I say “promising,” because LG didn’t have much actually on display at the show. Touted features, though, include daily, weekly, and/or monthly reports on energy consumption via the network, as well as an inventory system for the contents of your refrigerator by way of a drag-and-drop interface on the touchscreen on the front, or via voice recognition. LG also plans to add its HOM-BOT robotic vacuum cleaner to the network, allowing you to tidy up the house or even feed your cat while away from home (because we all know how well Tabby and the Hoover get along.)

But aside from the energy management options, I walked away from LG and Kenmore’s booths pondering just how much of this technology I would actually use on a day-to-day basis once the newness wore off. And considering the piper paying me to check out all of these appliances, I also left wondering why the average integrator should care about any of this much-ballyhooed “smart” technology. Truthfully, you shouldn’t, unless you just enjoy the occasional truck roll to reboot a persnickety wireless router.

But then I wandered into Control4’s booth, with its wall of classy stainless steel Sub-Zero appliances lining the front wall. Nary a touchscreen control interface mars their elegant façades; those were mounted in walls or found on iPads around the booth. Quite frankly, the appliances themselves looked no different from the sexy Sub-Zero offerings we’ve seen for years.

Actually, they’re the exact same appliances. As Sub-Zero project engineer Steve Nackers took me through a demo of the various ways the company’s lineup can now interface with a complete Control4 home automation system–increasing ice production when you put the house into party mode, working in conjunction with the lighting control to subtly blink the lights when the oven is fully preheated, or even sending a notification to the television in the living room when the roast has reached optimal temperature (the assumption being that you’re sane and actually prefer to stay home when the oven’s cranked up)–he explained that something like 40 Sub-Zero models introduced since 2002 are already primed and ready for integration with Control4.

“All of the things you’re seeing these appliances do, they’ve been capable of doing for years,” Nackers explained. “We’ve actually had the infrastructure in place to do all of these things for awhile, but it’s only been accessible by our service technicians, so they could go out there knowing more or less what’s wrong with an appliance, confirm it easily, replace a part, and be done. So there’s a certain amount of information that we’ve provided that allowed the servicer to do his job, but it never was exposed to the consumer.”

The port by which Sub-Zero technicians accessed that information is the same portal through which Control4 now taps into the appliances, by way of a relatively simple ZigBee adapter. “There’s no need for us [at Sub-Zero] to do anything else from a hardware standpoint right now,” Nackers said. “Any adjustments or additional features–like more sophisticated energy management, once the information is available more reliably and consistently from the utilities market–will all be done via software. But that’s one of the reasons we think our approach to smart appliances is much more doable [than others we’ve seen]. We’re not inventing new technologies or new techniques. We’re just taking what the appliance does already and enhancing it to make it more useful to the consumer, and to make it more a part of the whole home.”

The Security Question

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By working with Control4, Sub-Zero can automate its appliances to increase ice production when you put the house into Party mode, work in conjunction with lighting control to subtly blink the lights when the oven is fully preheated, or even send a notification to the television in the living room when the roast has reached optimal temperature.

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Given that Control4 is handling all of the new hardware for this partnership, I ask the company’s VP of support services, Paul Williams, about security issues. Because as nice as all of this appliance integration sounds, as useful as it may be–especially in contrast to the somewhat gimmicky nature of standalone offerings–in a day and age where computer viruses are crippling rival countries’ entire nuclear programs, doesn’t the idea of network-connected ovens and fridges sound a little scary? Do I really want to risk the possibility of ticking off the little snot-nosed hacker next door and having him retaliate by ruining my soufflé or defrosting my fridge at inopportune times?

“We’re not actually controlling the appliance itself,” Williams assured me. “So if there’s a fear that we’re going to turn the oven on in the middle of the night and cause some harm–we can’t do that. The appliances are merely providing information for us to utilize within the home control system to enable other actions or other types of lifestyle enhancements. What we’re offering is an open palette of capability, and from there the homeowner can work with their integrator to decide what’s best for their lifestyle and what’s best for how they want to interact with those products in the home.”

And that’s the real beauty of Control4 and Sub- Zero’s partnership. “We don’t prescribe what’s going to be done with the appliances and the automation system,” Sub-Zero’s Nacker said. “You don’t have to make the lights flash. You don’t have to send announcements over the multi-room audio system when the refrigerator door is left open too long. We fully expect that only some of the possible features enabled by this partnership are going to be used in any given installation. We’re just providing information, and Control4 is providing ability, and you put those things together to meet the desires you have as a consumer. It’s all about what each consumer wants, rather than what some manufacturer thinks is right for them.”

And best of all, that realm of possibilities is ready to be explored now.

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