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Appliances that run your life

The latest frontier for cutting-edge technology: Smart homes.

The LG Multi-Media Refrigerator boasts a 15.1-in. digital LCD monitor to watch the news, download recipes, send and receive e-mail, as well as leave video messages.
Visionaries were talking about smart homes even back in the days when bulky, plug-in timers switched on lamps to thwart potential break-ins. But it looks like reality might finally catch up with predictions.

In its essence, a smart home consists of smart appliances networked together, rather like an electronic staff of hired help that keeps a home running smoothly. In the works is a smart refrigerator that monitors food expiration dates, keeps an inventory on what's inside, and can download recipes from the Web. Also, it will be able to reorder products by e-mailing grocery stores that deliver. On the market today is a line of appliances that can be networked together, perhaps using radio frequencies modulated onto power lines for the network medium. The line includes a smoke alarm, coffeemaker, electric blanket, standing mixer, bathroom scale, and blood-pressure monitor.

However, there are some obstacles to overcome. Most homes today lack the wiring that home networking demands, though wireless standards such as WiFi may mitigate this problem. A bigger hurdle is the lack of a universal language for appliances. The solution may come from a group of top manufacturers that recently formed a coalition called Networked Home Solutions with appliance communication in mind. Experts think consumer demand for these high-tech products will be low, at least initially. Nevertheless, a report from Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, sees smart appliances as one of the trends that will be commonplace by 2012. One innovation they foresee is a universal remote control for not just appliances but also for all home electronics.

Another prediction: the integration of TV, telecommunications, and computing will pick up steam. Thanks to continuing miniaturization, say Battelle researchers, handheld and laptop computers will be as common as telephones. Also, expect to see video phone calls through TVs, computer screens, or cell phones start becoming as common as telling time with watches or clocks.

To power all these smart appliances, Battelle researchers predict miniaturized fuel cells will begin replacing traditional batteries. Miniaturized proton-exchange-membrane (PEM) fuel cells will increase energy efficiency and density of storage. Even heating, cooling, and other major functions may run from fuel-cell power.

So what's even farther down the road? Hopefully not a refrigerator that chastises you for eating a second bowl of ice cream while revealing what you weigh.

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TAGS: Automotive
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