While much of the buzz at any Consumer Electronics Show revolves around the sexier kids in school -- TVs, computers, cell phones -- there is a quiet rumble surrounding the impending release of a horde of "connected appliances," which is a blanket term for fridges, washers, dryers, dishwashers, stoves and ovens that communicate in some way with each other and maybe with the outside world.
I had the chance to get close looks at two of the companies leading the charge to get this technology to market -- Samsung and LG -- to see the progress each is making, and which options they have chosen to include in the models being shown here at CES.
Over at Samsung, they have a slight leg up, as they are one of the companies that has already released a refrigerator with WiFi connectivity. The currently available model doesn't have that many apps to choose from, but it will soon get a big upgrade in the form of an app called Grocery Manager, which allows users to drag and drop various food items into a diagram of the appliance and then enter expiration dates. While this requires some extra work, some people may appreciate being able to know the expiration dates of their foods without having to go rummaging through the door.
The next generation of Samsung connected fridges will obviously include this app but will offer a wider variety of options, especially for people with other Samsung connected devices.
Samsung is also hoping to include an e-commerce app that would allow you to shop for food straight from the front of your fridge. A rep says this is already being tested in Korea and that the company is working on finding partnerships stateside for when these fridges eventually launch.
Then there is the TV streaming functionality, which allows anyone with a Samsung Smart TV to watch the programming directly on the fridge's LCD monitor. A rep for the company says it will also allow you to change the channel through your cable box, though I can't personally vouch that this ability is what I was being shown.
And for the person who has the upcoming Samsung connected washers and dryers, the new fridge will allow you to monitor those devices from your kitchen.
Speaking of which, Samsung is prepping to launch connected laundry devices that will allow users to monitor -- and even stop/start washing and drying cycles -- through a smartphone app.
Over at LG, connectivity appears to be slightly farther away from hitting showroom floors, but there are certain things that might be worth the wait.
The connected LG fridge may not let you watch TV on the screen, but its smartphone app will scan individual items or entire receipts and then transfer estimated expiration information directly to your fridge.
It also has a function that allows users to enter things like food allergies or other dietary concerns to alert you to possible hazards.
And while the Samsung fridge talks to your washer/dryer, the LG fridge talks to the future line of connected LG ovens, so when you select a recipe, you can send the time/temp information directly across the room to the other appliance without having to move an inch.
The connected LG fridge and washer/dryer have a couple of other legs up on the Samsung (at least in theory; none of these demos are for products with set on-sale dates, so anything can change) by containing SmartGrid technology that connects wirelessly to "smart meters" to monitor power usage and cost. This allows them to perform their most energy-consuming functions at a time that will cost you the least amount of money.
Additionally, these appliances contain LG's SmartDiagnosis functionality, which allows the company to remotely talk to the device to see what the problem might be. Current versions of SmartDiagnosis work by the user holding up a phone to a small speaker that spits out something resembling the AOL dial-up noise. The new connected appliances will skip this inconvenience and simply use WiFi to communicate.
So that's the future of appliances. It may take quite some time before we start seeing these in homes of anyone but early adopters, but it appears to be an inevitability as manufacturers move away from simply making appliances with low-end browsers on small screens and begin offering functionality that makes sense for the consumer.
CES 2012: "Smart" LG fridge suggests what to cook based on what's inside it