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Archive for Monday, August 14, 2006

Laundry of the future

Washers, dryers air messages to PCs, televisions, phones

August 14, 2006

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The technology behind cleaning clothes has spun through more than a few cycles during the last century, from clunky hand-cranked machines to today's gleaming appliances that can detect a load's size and even how much grime is ground into the fabric.

Soon, those who delight in living the clean life could be awash in an even newer twist.

Washers and dryers that link wirelessly to Internet-connected home networks are being tested by consumers who are receiving updates on their dirty laundry via cell phones, computers and TV sets.

Messages not only indicate when a wash is complete but also can warn that a lint filter is clogged or a load is too large. Users can remotely command the machines to fluff dry clothes or start a load from a distance after being told - oops - they forgot to start the wash.

Peggy Spencer, a 57-year-old teacher whose family is involved in a trial of the system launched by the Internet Home Alliance, hopes to use it to monitor the wash from the comfort of a lounge chair - at her neighborhood pool.

The technology test, dubbed Laundry Time, recently began evaluating how three Atlanta families use the devices over six weeks.

"When you think about it, it's just laundry. It's not exciting. But this isn't about technology. It's about the emotional impact of the technology," said Tim Woods, an Internet Home Alliance vice president.

The project, which involves Whirlpool Corp., Panasonic and Microsoft Corp., relies on a wireless network, two TV tuners and Microsoft Media Server software to send the details to devices across the home network and beyond.

Jonathan Cluts, director of consumer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft Corp., discusses Microsoft's involvement in the Laundry Time project at the Whirlpool Corp.'s Insperience Studio in Atlanta. The project hooks a Whirlpool Duet Sport washer dryer to a Microsoft-programmed computer, a Panasonic TV screen, and a cell phone to allow the consumer to keep up with their laundry remotely. In background, Colson Nunnelley demonstrates remote features. 
Below, Nunnelley shows the screen of a cell phone programmed to display information from the project.

Jonathan Cluts, director of consumer prototyping and strategy at Microsoft Corp., discusses Microsoft's involvement in the Laundry Time project at the Whirlpool Corp.'s Insperience Studio in Atlanta. The project hooks a Whirlpool Duet Sport washer dryer to a Microsoft-programmed computer, a Panasonic TV screen, and a cell phone to allow the consumer to keep up with their laundry remotely. In background, Colson Nunnelley demonstrates remote features. Below, Nunnelley shows the screen of a cell phone programmed to display information from the project.

It could be at least a year from the marketplace, depending on how the pilot and other studies iron out. And company executives said they haven't yet discussed how they'd price such appliances if they actually release them. Whirlpool says modifying its latest models wouldn't be tough if the company decides to offer the technology to the masses.

"It's really not rocket science," said Rich McCoy, Whirlpool's lead engineer. "But it's something new to our industry. We're slowly adopting things that make sense."

Even without the network capability, the latest washers and dryers are part of a wave of new household products that work more efficiently thanks to complex systems of electronic sensors.

The newest dishwashers, for instance, rely on dirt-sniffing electronics - not timers - to shut off. Vacuums can determine how much soil and grime is on the floor, so suction levels can be adjusted accordingly. State-of-the-art microwaves can detect the weight of popcorn and then apply the right amount of heat to get the perfect pop.

Companies have long envisioned a day when these appliances can be linked to the same home network that connects a family's computers, printers and other electronic devices.

But some observers are skeptical.

"I think this is a great example of people using new technology to solve a problem that doesn't exist," said Laura Champine, a home products analyst for Morgan Keegan. "I've done my own laundry for four decades and I've never been away from my home and wondered how it's doing. Until the cell phone can load the dryer, I don't know how this technology will work for me."

The system's backers disagree. In the realm of laundry alone, the technology could allow Laundromat operators to notify customers remotely when their loads are done, rather than forcing them to wait for the buzzer to sound.

A handful of college dorms already have warmed up to similar technology for students who no longer have mom nearby to wash their dirty clothes. At Georgia Tech, a program called LaundryView allows students to get cell phone calls and e-mails when their laundry's rinse cycle is done.

Laundry Time, though, would even allow folks to start an extra cycle even when they're on the road.

"The No. 1 thing consumers say they want is a laundry robot. But Laundry Time gets them one step closer to not having to run up and down the stairs anymore," said Carol Priefert, a Whirlpool senior product development manager.

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