Monday, May 19, 2008

Personal Tech on Fridge

Last spring, LG unveiled the “world’s first high-definition TV refrigerator,” with a 15-inch LCD screen built into the refrigerator door, as well as an FM radio and weather station. The unit costs $4,000.

A year later, it’s not really a product the company wants to talk much about, preferring to focus on other new tech-related kitchen efforts, including two built-in wall ovens, each with a 7-inch touchscreen control system.

Marrying the refrigerator door and personal technology has been a challenge for several companies much of the past decade. But newer efforts are combining more practical approaches and Americans’ growing need to deal with clutter in their kitchens.

“We know from our research that many consumers are using their kitchen as the hub of household activity, and they are using their laptops, digital music players and speaker docking stations in the kitchen,” said Tim Herbert, senior director of market research for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade industry group.

“Consumers are always willing to entertain product options that would enable them to save valuable kitchen space.”

That was part of the motivation Whirlpool said was behind its centralpark connection refrigerator, announced last fall.

The $2,000 appliance has a modular space on the upper-left side of the door that can be used to swap out a digital photo frame, an iPod dock and speaker system, a convertible computing device or a message center. Each item is purchased separately.

De-cluttering the kitchen
“The No. 1 issue we’ve found consumers say is a problem in the kitchen is clutter and not having enough counter space, no matter what size the kitchen, even in larger kitchens,” said Mark Hamilton, Whirlpool’s director for centralpark.

“It’s become an even bigger issue with more devices showing up, such as the laptop or photo frame or music player, in the kitchen. Consumers are really dissatisfied with having to keep those things on the counters. They’re taking up space, there’s lots of wires and there’s also concern about while you’re cooking in there, hurting those devices and messing them up,” he said.

“So those issues led us to say, let’s use the refrigerator in a better way, not necessarily in a new way, but a better way, and bring it into the digital age.”

The centralpark refrigerator has a power connection built into the top edge of the door that is not visible. There’s also a place for the devices to lock into place on the door.

“We know from our research that the average refrigerator is interacted with 55 times a day, so we wanted to make sure if people slam the door, these these devices stay in place,” said Hamilton.

So far, only the 8-inch digital frame — made by Ceiva, at a cost of $199 — is available for the centralpark fridge. It can use memory cards from a camera for showing photos. Users can also sign up for Ceiva’s subscription-based digital photo service, which costs $99 a year.

There’s some wisdom in going with a photo frame first.

Americans like stainless steel refrigerators. But one of the first things many new fridge owners learn is that stainless steel probably won’t accept all those magnets that dotted their old refrigerator doors for years, holding photos and schedules and notes to family members. Most grades of stainless steel used for refrigerators are not magnetic.

In addition, many family photos that might have wound up on the fridge — magnets or not — are not being printed. They’re languishing on home computers, or residing on memory cards.

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