Would you like your oven to send you a text? Your extractor fan to have a life of its own? Your fridge to become something like a robot, able to talk and catalogue what it contains, sending that information to you while you’re on your way home?
That, at least, is the vision the companies who made your kitchen are pursuing. The smart home – long the preserve of early adopters who want to control their lightbulbs – is gradually growing up. And as it does, it’s finding its way into the kitchen.
At this year’s CES, the world’s biggest gadget show, companies like LG and Samsung showed off their fridges, ovens, washing machines and dishwashers just like normal. But there was something entirely abnormal about the most expensive of them: they each integrated their own little computers and internet connections, allowing them to hook themselves up to each other and to the world outside.
(Internet-enabled appliances tend to be significantly more expensive than their offline counterparts. But that’s partly because it’s mostly the more luxury appliances that include connected features, which haven’t yet made their way down to the more budget models and makes. That might be a good thing, as we’ll get to.)
Gradually, the kitchen is becoming the site of some of the more practical disruption going on in the technology industry. It is already the home of a range of understated technology – smart speakers, tablets – but it is quickly overtaking the living room or the home office as the most high-tech room in the house. Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa, for instance, is primarily used as music. But its other big function is timers – and most of those timers, you can safely presume, are to kitchen jobs like making sure something stays in the oven long enough.
Many of those cylinders – the Echo, which contains Alexa, and the Google Home – have made their way into the kitchen organically, and found an important place there. Amazon’s Echo Show seems calculated specifically for the kitchen, with its big screen allowing for recipes and timers.
Voice control is also perfect for a place where you tend to either have your hands full or covered in something. Again, that has led voice assistants to flourish in the kitchen, allowing people to use the internet without touching it.
Some of the other reasons for the rise of the internet-enabled kitchen is obvious: there’s a lot of appliances in there, they all need to be controlled, and failing to do so can lead to fires or unwashed clothes.
But the other reason is more profound than that. Many people see the kitchen as the heart of the home, says Samsung, and it was research showing that which eventually led the company to settle on it as a place for innovation. Making the home smart means starting at its centre – and for many people, that’s the kitchen.
“Ultimately, the fridge has always been a social hub for the home – the place where you pin family photos, kids’ paintings, shopping lists and notes to other family members,” says Nick Bevan, head of product management for home appliances at Samsung UK & Ireland. “It makes sense therefore that this would evolve into a true smart connected hub like the Samsung Family Hub.”
Part of the dream of the smart kitchen, says Samsung, is making it so that you don’t have to leave. Or at least not quite as much – its connected fridge allows people to do numerous jobs that might once have required going elsewhere in the house without ever actually leaving.
“Some of these include checking who is at the front door using the fridge’s screen with the ring doorbell app, adjusting the thermostat, and even checking on a sleeping baby in the next room, right from the refrigerator screen. Interconnectivity between kitchen devices will also bring benefits – for example, your extractor hood could instantly and automatically increase in power as you turn up the temperature of your hob, and in turn inform your wireless speaker to turn up the volume a notch to compensate for any increase in fan noise,” says Bevan.
“We envisage this interconnected technology will continue to become more intuitive and intelligent, so connected living becomes second nature to everyone, and multi-tasking becomes easier than ever.”
For now, perhaps the biggest concern about that connected living is whether your various smart things can talk to each other. There is getting to be almost as many connected home platforms as there are companies making them, and the question of whether you control your oven using a system made by Amazon, Google or Apple is a central one to how you use your fridge. With time, companies are expected to move together – Samsung and other companies very much believe that “smart living shouldn’t just be limited” to their own products – but the fear is that will be each of them opening up their own platforms to each other, with none of them actually able to speak to each other.
Also, as with every piece of the smart home, security questions abound. Hooking your fridge up to the internet gives people a way of allowing people to hack into it; your oven or extractor fan could secretly be part of an international criminal network.
If someone virtually breaks in, then they have access to some of your most intimate and dangerous things: cameras to watch you, ovens to turn on without your consent, even the ability to see what’s inside your fridge. But in actual fact, the most damaging traffic is probably going the other way – increasingly, hackers are taking over smart devices and using them as parts of botnets. That sticks them all together in one computer, which means that a hacker could, for instance, point a whole army of fridges at one part of the internet and potentially take it down.
Every major company that makes such smart appliances at least claims to be keenly focused on making sure they don’t expose their owners to hacking. And it’s yet another reason to make sure that you’re careful about what you buy, relying on appliances that are reputable and have been checked, as well as featuring security tools – just as you’d be worried a low quality fridge might burn your house down, a low quality smart fridge might burn down important parts of the internet.
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