A day at home in the very near future could easily begin with a trip to the digital toilet. Equipped with electronic sensors, the porcelain of tomorrow can conduct an automated urinalysis and whisk the results to the doctors office over the Internet. Later in the kitchen, the homeowners voice commands the refrigerator to suggest a meal, which it does on a display screen, while noting that an ingredient is missing. Not to worry, says Tim Bajarin, a leading computer-industry analyst and futurist. The homeowner will simply add the item to a shopping list on the refrigerators liquidcrystal display screen, and fire off an order to the online grocer. Meantime, the hungry homeowner opts for a prepackaged frozen meal and scans its bar code into the microwave to set the cooking time and power level automatically. While the food is being zapped, there’s an opportunity to do a little Net surfing on the microwave’s built-in display screen. All this can be done with existing technologies, says Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies Inc. in Campbell, Calif. But ask him if there’s any consumer demand, and Bajarin chuckles. “Of course not,” he says. “Not yet.”
Powerful forces within the industry are, however, working to move the focus from personal computers to socalled information appliances offering Net access for the wired home of the next millennium. Some analysts go so far as to say that the PC’s reign as a tool
to access the Net is in its sunset phase. But while personal computers are not likely to disappear anytime soon, they face competition from an array of emerging technologies offering new ways to get online, whether through refrigerators, microwaves or bargain-priced flatpanel display screens designed solely to surf. These gadgets are not the stuff of
science fiction, rather they are the buzz of the industry.
In keeping with that momentum, this week’s Comdex conference in Las Vegas is running under the banner “Beyond the PC.” (Comdex is considered the computer industry’s pre-eminent gathering.) Tom Rhinelander, a senior analyst with Lorrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says the PC’s popularity has “ridden this triple wave of being associated with work, education and the Net. All three of those capabilities,” he says, “are going to be spread out among other devices now.”
In several cases, these technologies have already arrived. Smart toilets to
measure blood-alcohol levels, for example, exist in Japanese bars, says Bajarin, a member of Comdex’s advisory board. What’s more, no great leap is required to take their design a step further to develop a diagnostic bowl linked to the Net. Bajarin firmly believes that within three years the number of information appliances sold will dwarf PC sales.
Not surprisingly, household appliance manufacturers see the kitchen, the hub of home activity, as the place to access the Net and, by extension, spread the reach of electronic commerce. To this end, NCR Corp.’s Knowledge Lab in London has developed a prototype called the Microwave Bank, which should cost about $500 and will combine online shopping and banking with e-mailing and watching TV. Lrigidaire Home Products of Augusta, Ga., on the other hand, has built a concept refrigerator with a touch-screen, flatpanel monitor mounted in the door that can be used to access the Net, shop online and play video games. Lrigidaire says the unit “creates unlimited possibilities to make life easier.”
Jon Katz, manager of advanced product development for GE Appliances in Louisville, Ky., plays his trade secrets closer to his chest. That’s because General Electric is gearing up for a major splash at the National Association of Home Builders conference in Dallas in January, where GE will introduce a line of speech-recognition appliances. Researchers working on GE’s smart-appliance project, internally dubbed the Jetson project, have devised an appliance—Katz won’t say what kind—with a removable, cordless display screen to surf the Net. “You’ll be completely wireless,” says Katz, “like a cordless telephone.” The question now is whether consumers will warm to the e-fridge.
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