Electric toasters and kettles of the 21st century will do more than just make toast and boil water. They will be deeply sensual objects that form bonds with their owners, writes Steve Connor.
At least one company is studying the feasibility of making domestic appliances which respond to the mood of the person using them, Clifford Friend, a materials scientist at Cranfield University in Swindon, told the meeting yesterday.
Grabbing a kettle roughly will cause its handle to become elastic and malleable to absorb the shock of an out-of-sorts owner, he said. Touching it tenderly will make its handle's "adaptive structure" stiffen like a cat being stroked.
Dr Friend, whose research is being funded by the Government's Engineering Research Council, said the concept of introducing emotional "intelligence" into dumb objects is being treated seriously by competitive manufacturers.
"We buy things by appearance and by feel. It's what the packaging manufacturers have done for years on the supermarket shelves. There is a very strong interest at the moment in the production of the physical cases of electronic appliances, such as toasters, water jugs and kettles, which are adaptive in the sense that they adapt to you," he said.
"The rationale is that you fall in love with your domestic appliance which has the manufacturer's name on the side. You fall in love with the toaster and what do you do? You go out and buy the kettle. It's as cynical as that."
Intelligent materials are already being built for adaptive structures within aircraft, where they can be used to alter the aerodynamics of the wings to suit flying conditions. In Japan, scientists are designing intelligent reinforced concrete for buildings to monitor structural defects automatically, he said.
Dr Friend believes the first lovable products could be on sale within the next 10 years, but refused to name the leading company interested in the work.
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