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issue: June 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Expanding Appliance Possibilities

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Bill Rich, vice president of Engineering and Quality, Lennox Hearth Products

Since their inception nearly 50 years ago, electric fireplaces have relied mainly on low-tech devices such as crinkled foil, silk ribbons, and fans to mimic a flickering flame effect. However, a new development in the entertainment industry—the Digital Video Disk (DVD) player—has greatly improved the realism of electric fireplace design.

Bill Rich is vice president of Engineering and Quality for Lennox Hearth Products. He has a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Chicago Technical College and is skilled in both Kaizen and Six Sigma Academy methodologies. During his 27-year career, he has directed corporate engineering activities and streamlined development and manufacturing procedures at a variety of companies.

This technological leap may hold the key to future development of not only “faux” fireplaces, but also other replica products in other areas of the appliance industry.

Inspired by visual effects such as those used in attractions at Disney World and other theme parks, engineers began experimenting with a video version of an electric fireplace about 10 years ago. With the advent of the DVD player, the idea of this type of electronic replication became feasible.

Using the help of a Hollywood special-effects company, a real wood-burning fire was videotaped and recorded onto a DVD, and the images were digitally matched to a manufactured fireplace’s artificial log set. In the actual fireplace, a built-in DVD player and color television projects the video images from inside the top of the fireplace onto an angled glass sheet below. This process refracts the image and causes the flames to appear as if they are actually “burning” within the artificial log set.

This illusory effect has similar properties to a hologram and is well known among magicians who use angled mirrors to make people or objects appear in places they really are not. To prevent the viewer from seeing a reflection from the glass, a pale-color brick interior was used. An illuminated ember bed, which can be operated with or without the video-projected “flames,” adds to the fiery illusion.

What this means to the industry is that now any consumer—regardless of whether they live in a high-rise apartment or on a yacht—can recreate the ambience of a traditional fireplace in their home. Initially, the target market for this product is affluent homeowners, but that will widen as technology costs continue to decrease.

DVD technology has proved useful in the fireplace segment of the appliance industry and has expanded the traditional parameters of what can be produced. It may have the ability to do the same in other areas of the industry.

DVDs have very few limitations compared to previous video systems such as VCRs or laser disk players. Unlike its predecessors, DVDs don’t simply store visual images. They can be programmed to play these images on demand.

This programmable ability makes the technology especially relevant to appliance makers that may want to consider installing features such as a video instruction manual that teaches consumers how to operate a new dishwasher, dryer, or refrigerator. It might even assist appliance makers with their branding efforts as well. For example, a stove that could play a famous chef’s instructional video could be developed. This is possible now that DVD players are being mass-marketed at an affordable price point, which means that the industry now has more design options.

Appliance engineers and designers contemplating the use of DVD technology in their products, however, should explore all aspects of its programming system to understand all the design capabilities that could be integrated with the use of the technology. This includes menu structure, start screens, chapter selection, and resolution quality.

For example, a DVD player can be programmed to play a particular sequence when it is first turned on. When a menu button is pressed, a different sequence can be played. If prompted again, the first video option returns. Additionally, it is programmable so the sequence may be set to loop indefinitely. This technological advancement is a step beyond its VCR predecessor because tapes can be constructed to loop, but only for brief periods, which is what makes the use of DVD technology a notable advancement.

The small size of DVD components is also significant. Currently, most DVD players are built into conventional stereo/turntable consoles or boxes, which are bulky and large. In reality, however, DVD technology itself is quite compact. As manufacturers make these devices smaller, it will open up new possibilities for all kinds of appliances—and will expand what the industry is able to produce through harnessing this technology.

Looking outside one’s own industry for inspiration can help appliance engineers develop products that will put their company light years ahead of the competition. Deciding which opportunities to pursue can be difficult, but many times, it can offer great rewards and serve as an impetus to move the industry forward.


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