By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Time constraints on consumers, the tendency of families to congregate in the kitchen, and wider adoption of broadband Internet access are helping to prime the pump for smart appliance acceptance.
But high prices, limited household space and consumer technophobia represent considerable barriers to entry, which must be overcome before the connected kitchen becomes commonplace.
That's the word from the Consumer Electronics Assocation (CEA), which cited hybrid white goods as one of “Five Technologies To Watch” in an eponymous report on up-and-coming opportunities.
First, the good news: As the CEA study notes, the rapid expansion of high-speed home networks and the rollout of smart kitchen appliances looks like a marriage destined for success. According to InStat/MDR, the number of networked homes worldwide is expected to leap from 35 million in 2004 to nearly 100 million by 2008. At the same time, the prospect of making kitchen chores more efficient and meals more edible for time-crunched families is certainly appealing.
“Our research shows that busy consumers still blame themselves when they cannot provide their families with home-cooked meals,” said Henry Marcy V, Whirlpool's VP/corporate technology and electronics, who was quoted in the report.
Another factor working in hybrid majaps' favor is that industry players have already conquered many of the problems that face a new technology, such as conflicts over standards and proprietary software. Working under the auspices of groups such as the Internet Home Alliance, which promotes broadband use at home, companies including Whirlpool, Sears, Best Buy, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Icebox have come together to resolve basic design issues and to study consumer behaviors.
One such study, called Mealtime, was launched in 2003 as a real-world test that allows consumers across the country to use Internet-enabled refrigerators and ovens and control them from remote locations. The program, though costly, provides the industry with invaluable research on what consumers want and why, what the devices should look like, and how they should operate, which could help vendors accelerate adoption rates.
“What we learn from the Mealtime pilot will drive much of what we do in terms of future product development,” Whirlpool's Marcy said in the CEA report. “When it comes to home technology products and services, consumers are going to buy solutions, so collaborative testing, like the Mealtime pilot, which includes companies from across the value chain, is becoming one of the most critical parts of today's consumer research equation.”
Nevertheless, the industry is still facing stiff challenges in marketing and installing smart kitchens nationwide, CEA noted. Despite the clear benefits, many consumers are intimidated by new technologies, especially if they come attached to yet another new technology like home networking.
Although an estimated 42 percent of single-family households in the United States are interested in new technology in a connected home (according to a recent study by the Internet Home Alliance), the industry has to be careful not to push too much on consumers too soon, CEA advises. As network installers can attest, the average person who installs a home network merely wants to access the Internet on more than one PC in the home, while offers to create a more elaborate network that includes, for example, multiroom game playing, are usually rebuffed.
As a result, consumers may hesitate if the smart kitchen appliance seems more complicated than it needs to be, CEA wrote, and the industry's growth could be hampered if companies put the cart before the horse. Their advice: communicate to consumers the benefits of connected kitchens in ways that demonstrate how technology makes life simpler and more efficient.
Another obstacle: many older, smaller kitchens can't easily be reconfigured for hybrid appliances, either because the smart refrigerator or oven is too large for the allotted space or a home's electrical capacity is insufficient to handle a more sophisticated device, and rewiring may be too costly an option.
Indeed, most new devices, such as the Internet-enabled fridge, cost at least $2,000 each, CEA says, and if you add a home network, the cost for smart kitchen can run anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, which exceeds the prospect of greater convenience for many consumers.
To address this, the industry must target the luxury home and new home markets, particularly in the early stages, CEA advises, as pre-wiring the kitchen allows smart appliances with broadband connections to be in place before the owner moves in. Both the real estate and majap markets are hoping that the smart kitchen will become an added value in selling a new home, much like a backyard swimming pool or garage.
Finally, CEA suggests that the industry invest in marketing programs designed to persuade more Americans to get high-speed Internet services and home networks.
Once hybrid appliances gain critical mass, consumers will be able to purchase individual products through the traditional retail channel, as packages from home network installers and home builders who incorporate connected kitchens into their construction and add their expenses into the final cost of the home.
CEA's “Five Technologies To Watch” report, which also examines media servers, portable entertainment, innovative gaming and telematics (the integration of telecommunications and computing) — as well futuristic technologies like biometrics, holograms, conductive surfaces, nanotechnology, robotics and wearable computers — can be accessed online at www.CE.org/publications/books_references/5tech_watch-2005.pdf.
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