Intelligent Connected Appliances

With steady reductions in the price of processing power and memory, intelligence will continue to penetrate and populate virtually every product. Advances in wireless technology will allow low-cost, high-speed connections for hand-held devices, as well conventional appliances (washing-machines, refrigerators, etc.) to the Internet.  So in the next few years almost everything will become an intelligent, connected "appliance".


Bells & whistles need manuals


Consider what we need from the products we use: how to use (buttons, features, capabilities), history, location, part number, where purchased, when installed, by who, key characteristics, specifications, diagnostics, availability of spares, replacement alternatives, repair instructions, etc. In the past, this information would reside in printed documentation (the manuals), or remotely at the factory, or with trained experts. In the future, the appliance itself will contain all of the required knowledge, embedded within it and always accessible.


Today, products are designed to be simple and foolproof, with intuitive controls and adjustments, so that anyone can use them with minimal training. Intrinsically complex products with multiple uses (like a computer, or a VCR) arrive with fairly bulky manuals, which one has to study before the products can be used effectively. Because most people do not wish to spend the time with a complex manual, there is usually a "quick start" section, which enables the user to start using the product. Complicated products require a learning curve which inhibits many people and satisfies only those who are either already familiar with its use, or are willing to invest the time and energy to learn how to use it.


Look ma, no manuals!


In the future, the intelligent appliance will adapt to the characteristics of the user. It will be very simple and relatively foolproof for the casual user, and provide more features and capabilities for those who need or wish to utilize more. Adaptation includes functional changes as the user progresses from basic functions to more advanced features at a later stage.


The intelligent appliance will recognize which buttons are being pushed to record the habit patterns of the user and adapt to suit. With multiple users, the appliance may be told, or will sense who is using it, and act accordingly.  In all cases, context-sensitive "help" will be standard, eliminating the need for a written manual. Simple appliances that have no text-screens will have either "idiot lights" or voice-output, features that have minimal cost.


Voice-response will eliminate keyboards


Speech-recognition has limited uses today because of background noise and dependence on speaker characteristics.  As technology advances (more memory and processing power) appliance buttons will disappear and voice commands will be more common. This technology is already being utilized in automobile radios and cell phones and will soon become useable in other environments.


Within the next decade or so, tiny keyboards will be not be used on cell phones and PDAs, simply because voice-command technology will be much more economical and effective. Within a couple of decades, keyboards will become passé – most people will simply talk with their computers, as they do in Star-Trek.


Predictive Diagnostics


A significant and useful intelligence characteristic is diagnostics - not only after failure has occurred, but also predictive (before failure) and advisory (providing maintenance instructions). It is not sufficient to know that a product has failed; if the failure occurs at an inconvenient time that may result in significant inconvenience and hardship. Indeed, it is more important to signal that failure will probably occur "soon", allowing the user time to arrange alternatives.


Just as PCs have diagnostics for memory (RAM, disk-space and processing load) and provide warnings when these resources are short, most products will have predictive and preventive diagnostics. For example, if a button appears to be "sticky", then the appliance can perhaps continue to operate, with some precautions. On the other hand, a different kind of "stickiness" might demand immediate remedial action.  This is like sensing the rattling in an automobile engine to correct the problem before a catastrophic problem occurs. In the future, that kind of intelligence will reside in many intelligent appliances.


The Pervasive Internet


Connectivity infrastructure is moving very quickly to connect everyone and everything to the Internet, not only through high-speed DSL and cable-modems, but also soon through third-generation wireless. The impact on intelligent appliances of all types will be significant. Connecting products with conventional wire is still a major hindrance. With third-generation wireless connectivity (including the new, local-area-network technology called "bluetooth") virtually all products will be simply, effectively and economically connected.


With future appliances, a lot of connectivity will be hidden, simply there to help the manufacturer keep track of usage information, reporting data back to measure and avoid failure of parts and equipment. So, the manufacturer will call to let you know that your washing machine is about to fail, and that a new replacement part is already on the way.


Today, Internet connections occur primarily through computers. Soon, most connections will be though portable wireless "appliances" carried by individuals (as they carried radios yesterday and cell-phones today). Their wireless PDAs (personal digital assistants) will be connected via the web to everything they need, including access to other connected appliances. 


So, you can check the status of your home and all its appliances from wherever you are. And, through the GPS (global positioning system) in your PDA or cell phone, your home will know where you are.


Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. You can email him at: [email protected]. Or look at his poems, prognostications and predictions on his website: