Refrigerators and washing machines—not often the most high tech of home appliances—are usually barely given a nod at CES Press Day. Typically, the large consumer electronics manufacturers that present new gadgets on the day before the official opening of CES focus on flashing their television innovations—brighter, thinner, bigger, more colors. They usually relegate home appliances to a brief mention, along the lines of “We make these things too, they’re in our booth if you really care.”
But this year, several major companies elevated home appliances to center stage. Refrigerators are getting cameras and door-sized displays and all sorts of communications capabilities. Washing machines are getting automatic detergent dispensers and controls in strange (to me) places. And, yes, they reminded us, they do make TVs, which are of course bigger, thinner, and brighter than last year, but boast little new technology; instead 2016 is a year for moving last year’s tech into more models.
The wildest innovations seem to be coming to refrigerators. You thought you knew how to look inside? How about how to open the door? Think again. Knock on the door of LG Electronics’ top of the line refrigerator and it turns transparent so you can look inside without letting cold air out. When you want it to actually open, you don’t even have to knock, just step on a light pattern projected on the floor and it will open automatically. The company says this sensor technology is smart enough to not open when a pet or baby moves onto the sweet spot.
Samsung also expects owners of its latest refrigerators to look inside without opening the door—or without even leaving the couch. It’s built-in fridge cam takes a picture every time you close the door and lets you check the contents of the fridge from an app. It’s not the only company with that idea, British startup Smarter showed its add-in Fridge Cam on Monday at CES Unveiled.
Samsung is also addressing what it calls a pain point in refrigerator technology—the fact that magnets don’t stick to stainless steel doors. I agree that’s a pain point; I hate not being able to put notes and photos on my fridge (no, tape won’t work, it wrecks the finish). Samsung’s solution is to replace most of the door panel with a large touch screen display; that may be overkill. Besides displaying family photos and grocery lists, Samsung’s “family hub” system can order groceries for delivery and even unlock the front door to let the delivery guy in. I’m waiting for the version that puts the groceries away.
In washing machines, LG’s main improvement is its automatic detergent dispensing system. I hate constantly having to fill those little detergent wells from my probably-going-to-drip jug; so this innovation had me grinning, though I did wonder why, in a era of all sorts of automatic beverage dispensers we couldn’t have had this sooner. In another twist, both LG and Samsung have put the touch screen controls on the glass cover (a door in LG’s case, lid in Samsung’s demo. I’m not so sure about this innovation, my family managed to crack the door on our quite new (no, not LG) washer, it was expensive enough to replace a dumb cover, never mind a smart one.
Panasonic raced through a laundry list of announcements covering smart cities, stadiums, car batteries, cameras, and even a turntable for vinyl records, but didn’t neglect appliances, introducing a smart blender and smarter microwave. I thought my current blender and microwave were smart enough.
Photo: Tekla Perry
Chinese companies TCL and Hisense spent their press conference time talking about their new TV models (brighter, thinner, etc.), but neither were immune to the draw of home appliances, pointing out that they are expanding their efforts, with TCL opening a new factory and Hisense a new R&D center.
And they, along with most of the major companies announced that their highest-end TVs would incorporate high dynamic range technology (HDR) in 2016. This technology, which makes darks darker and brights brighter, was talked about at last year’s CES, but is only now really starting to percolate into more than a couple of TV models.
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.