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Sep 5, 2018

The Missing Link

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The refrigerator demo was going well. The combination of cameras inside the fridge and artificial intelligence (AI) metaphorically wrapped around each item meant the external screen we were looking at not only showed what was inside, but also tagged each item with its appropriate food category. The demonstrator looked relieved and, in a moment of candid honesty, said, “Phew. Earlier the fridge labeled that broccoli as a peach and the bread as a watermelon.” Yes, perhaps the intelligent fridge is still not quite ready for prime time.

Not that it matters, of course. Shows such as IFA - where this demo took place - are a healthy mixture of current realism and high-tech imagination, and the fridge is definitely in the latter camp. Not only does the technology not really work yet; neither does the accompanying sales pitch. Demo after demo struggled to explain why I would need to see the items inside without opening the door (perhaps to save energy?) or how effective the cameras will be when the fridge is stacked with food for the whole family, rather than the five items for a staged demo. Good luck seeing everything clearly on the screen and prepare for some hysterics as the AI tries to work out what is in the leftover containers from the day before.

Further, the connection as to why we need this intelligence within the fridge is also rather theoretical. The fridge could suggest recipes that make use of its contents, and could use some rather nifty intelligence that ensures that the recommended recipe uses the oldest products, thus ensuring less wasted food. But to be effective in that goal, the intelligence needs to know what is in your kitchen cupboards too. After all, you may have the refrigerated products to make a delicious pasta dish, but if you don't actually have any pasta in the house there’s a bit of a problem.

Despite all of these concerns, I cannot (yet) be a naysayer about the technology. Sure, it’s far from perfect, certainly not ready for prime time, and definitely not ready for a simple retail pitch, but the technology could evolve into something useful five years from now.

What seemed to be lacking from the show was a more evolutionary path towards the future. Sure, household appliances could talk to Alexa, or Google Home (not so much Siri), but there seemed to be a missing link between the appliance ecosystem (the washer and dryer in harmony, for example) and other home automation products, such as security cameras. And it is these smaller steps towards a technology future that are key to sparking the general population’s imagination.

Adding Alexa, or Home, or Siri is a starting point, of course. And this could make even more sense if tied to the various grocery shopping services, such as Peapod. But more important is to find a way to use the appliance’s new display - in the case of a refrigerator for example - in a more intelligent manner than simply offering access to the web, or as a pass-through view of what’s inside. Recipes are a reasonable start, and perhaps a tie into premium chef recipes for free would provide a little added incentive. Up-to-date weather information, perhaps a tie into one of the home weather monitoring kits, would also be useful, as would individual and family planners. But a neater solution overall is to use that screen as a good way to seamlessly manage all other home automation devices. This would in turn help to strengthen the ecosystem for a particular appliance brand (think LG or Samsung) and help them to carve out a stronger position in the overall tech market (something we examine more in NPD’s new The Evolving Ecosystem report).

Let’s end with a final look at the not-so-smart refrigerator we began with. An inquisitive audience member placed a sales brochure inside the fridge to see how the AI would handle an alien object. No problem: we had, apparently, just added a carton of yogurt to the machine’s contents.

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