During the past century, inventors have had a knack for bringing science fiction to life. They voyaged into the sea, though not quite to the middle of the Earth. They gave us moving pictures in our living room and a network of wireless communications devices. And they put a man on the moon.
But none of those Einsteins created a gadget that could warn you when milk in the refrigerator was bad and order more.
That's changing. A host of new products under development could offer consumers refrigerators that keep track of expiration dates on foods, microwaves that can "see" what they contain to know just how long it should cook, even garbage bins that know what's being tossed away so they can produce a handy shopping list.
That's going to be life in this century, some creators say.
Walk into a Sears or Bed, Bath & Beyond and you won't find much in the way of high-tech gadgetry yet not that consumers are in the mood to spend thousands on snazzy smart appliances anyway, during these days of economic uncertainty. But Lowe's Home Improvement is selling a washing machine that has sensors to know how much water to use, and how hot to make it.
The Amana Messenger Refrigerator has an LCD screen for family members to leave notes and short voice messages. And General Electric has a refrigerator with an Internet connection though it's hidden in the back and not yet enabled for use.
Samsung is promising by the end of this year a microwave that can go online to get recipes and step-by-step cooking instructions.
And next year, Seoul, Korea-based LG Electronics owner of the Zenith brand and a leader in the high-tech or "smart" appliance industry has a $10,000 refrigerator hitting the market that's rigged with a 15-inch LCD screen and a connection to the Internet.
"What we feel is that the refrigerator is going to be the central place in the home," said Daniel Lee, spokesman for LG. "It's the first place you go in the morning, the last place you go at night. Right now, on that particular unit, you can download MP3 songs, you can watch cable TV, you can listen to the radio, you can videoconference."
And there's more to come. IBM is working on a technology out of its lab in Austin, Tex., that would allow homeowners to place various prescription bottles onto a countertop device to learn whether the medications are a dangerous mix.
Many of the products will require a hookup to the Internet, which means a household has to have some kind of high-speed connection to the Web. Not to mention the increasing complexity that will come with appliances that double as supercomputers.
That kind of change is what jargon buffs like to call a paradigm shift.
What does that involve? For starters, think about a nice big screen on the fridge door that includes a Web browser surfable through a touch screen, stylus pen or a wireless mouse that sits on the table. The screen also includes a little video camera, so family members could leave short video messages to one another. In addition, the fridge would be able to dial up a grocery store over the Internet and order items it knows the homeowner needs. It would know this because the fridge includes a bar scanner that would note the expiration date of say, milk, and therefore know when more has to be ordered from the store's electronic database.
LG is also developing an Internet-enabled washing machine that allows the user to dial up a Web site and enter what kinds of clothes are in the wash. The machine, working off a database from the manufacturer's site, will decide how much water is needed, how hot it should be and what kind of cycle is appropriate. It should be on the market by 2003.
"The smart kitchen is about energy conservation, and conservation of water," said Paul O'Donovan of the research firm Gartner/Dataquest. "It's about using the Internet as a communication tool between the manufacturer of the goods and the goods themselves."