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issue: February 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

Concept Appliances
Connected Concepts

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Tim Somheil, editor

Fascinating ideas result when designers are given free rein.

Guopeng Liang’s iBasket is a wirelessly controlled, all-in-one laundry appliance that stores dirty clothes and automatically washes them when full.

Concept Appliances 2009:

Expanded Online: Connected Concepts

Expanded Online: From Communism to Crossover

A concept appliance, like a concept car, is intended to showcase new or even speculative design ideas and technology. When designers are freed of standard product development restrictions like cost and manufacturability they can travel outside the boundaries of what standard appliances look like and how they function. The results may be just interesting novelties, or they can be precursors to the appliances that will be in our homes in just a few short years.

Consumers the world over are becoming more connected to each other and, increasingly, to appliances, and it shows in the conceptual appliances that were unveiled in 2008. The world’s two biggest appliance makers, Whirlpool and Electrolux, have focused much of their attention on connected appliances.

It’s 2009—Where’s Home Automation?

 The old notion of home automation never had quite enough consumer appeal to overcome the perceived negatives. Smart homes seen on TV in the 1980s and 1990s had little more than expensive gadgets. Today, more consumer devices are becoming connected as home networks and hardwired/wireless communications grow more affordable and easier on the consumer. Networking systems for home entertainment are expanding to include devices that are less about entertainment, more about convenience.

Appliances, however, are still struggling to find notable ways of exploiting their place on the home network, and that progress is being hampered by an absence of standard communication formats. In January 2009 at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas hundreds of new connected devices were unveiled. But how well do they satisfy consumers’ No. 1 need: convergence?

The 2008 State of the Connected Home Market Study was released during CES. The report’s primary participant was Whirlpool, with participation from Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and others.

“What consumers want most is an easy, seamless way to integrate their smart home devices—their mobile device, their TV, their appliances, you name it,” said Carol Priefert, Whirlpool senior manager.

Electrolux made connected appliances the focus of its annual design competition for students. Design Lab 2008 asked industrial design students around the world to conceptualize home appliances for the Internet Generation. Electrolux describes iGeneration consumers as brand-conscious, busy young professionals, age 25–35. They’re independent and concerned about the environment, and, of course, their lives are intertwined with technology and online social networks.

“We are looking for daring ideas and solutions,” said Henrik Otto, Electrolux’s head of global design, when he made the call for 2008 entries. “Entries should reflect the Generation’s core interests and concerns like mobility, convenience, time, materials, personalization, entertaining, technology, and sustainability.”

The Drawer Kitchen, a Design Lab 2009 finalist, combines a kitchen table, fridge, cooktop, and dish drawer into an appliance the size of a filing cabinet.

Convenience Concepts

Several of the finalists’ designs share themes that are clearly of importance to many iGens. The winning concept was Flatshare, a modular fridge that addresses the need for separate food storage among apartment roommates. Flatshare designer Stefan Buchberger, a student at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, saw a clear need for it. “There is nothing more disgusting than a dirty fridge in a shared flat,” Buchberger said. “At the time, I was living in such a flat!”

Nojae Park, a design student at Chiba University near Tokyo, created the Drawer Kitchen concept to address the needs of people living as he does—in small spaces. It combines an eating surface, fridge, hot plate, and dish drawer, all in the space of a filing cabinet. “I got the idea from looking at the small living spaces in Tokyo and at how much time people spend at their desks when they are at home,” he explains. “A lot of people live in one-room flats.” They’re not home much, and eat only infrequent, simple meals at home.

The Internet is a main point of contact with the world for Park’s Generation: “They find information, keep up with their friends, order food, make reservations, and many other things through the Internet. And they don’t want to move while they are at their monitor, but at the same time, they are hungry. So they want to solve their hunger problem near their computer desk.”

Is it a healthy lifestyle? Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean millions of them aren’t living that way around the world, right now, and Electrolux finalists, coming from all over the world, saw a need to put expanded appliance utility in flexible, small devices. Germany’s Matthias Pinkert developed the Vesta induction cooktop to read RFID chips in food packaging, provide recipes, and after use fold up against the wall to provide more workspace in a tiny apartment kitchen.

Quick-cooling induction technology was also at the core of the Coox concept from France’s Antoine Lebrun. This adaptive cooking table can be moved to let users cook and eat anywhere, in the home, and table height adjusts so it can serve as dinner table, coffee table, or desk, as needed.

Laundry may be one of college students’ least-favorite chores. Guopeng Liang, a student at China’s Tongji University, won second place in Design Lab 2008 with the iBasket, a wirelessly controlled, all-in-one laundry appliance concept that stores dirty clothes and automatically washes them when full.

Matthias Pinkert, design student at the HTW University of Applied Sciences in Dresden, Germany, developed his Vesta induction cooktop to fold away against the wall when not in use to provide more workspace in a tiny apartment kitchen. "I was inspired by the fact that there are a lot of young, busy professionals in the Internet generation," Pinkert explained. "It also contains a scanner that can read RFID chips, which are predicted to replace barcodes on product packages. These chips could contain information about cooking times and temperatures and even recipe suggestions. So, Vesta
saves space, time and provides more comfort for the Internet generation."

Quick-cooling induction technology was also at the core of the Coox concept appliance from Antoine Lebrun, a design student at L¹Ecole de Design Nantes Atlantique, France.  The Coox adaptive cooking table can be moved throughout the home to let users cook and eat anywhere, and the table height adjusts so it can serve as an extension of the dinner table, a coffee table, or a or desk as-needed.

"Flexibility is a very important theme for such a diverse and complex generation," Lebrun said. "Even though it¹s easy to describe this generation, everyone has very different needs. That¹s why my concept doesn¹t impose one way of doing things but offers a maximum of possibilities for people to integrate it into their own lifestyles."

Thinking Through the Concept
Attila Sáfrány, a product design student at Moholy-Nagy University of Arts and Design in Budapest, Hungary, took some time to come up with the laundry appliance concept called Stratosphere. ³First, I considered washing. But then I realized that all of my best ideas had already been done," he explains. Then it occurred to him that his laundry needs did not begin and end with washing and drying clothes.

"I always leave clothes around that I intend to wear again and my friends do the same thing. It just seems obvious that both the clothes and the airshould be deodorized."  So Sáfrány came up with an sanitizing clothes rack, which deodorizes and disinfects clothes that are not quite ready to be
washed. "It¹s actually a valet that sucks germs and micropollutants<like the chemicals of body odor and cigarette smoke<out of the clothes. The polluted air goes through a HEPA filter and then a chamber that disinfects it with ultraviolet light."

Social Networking Kitchen Appliances
Understanding social networking is key to understanding the iGeneration, but older generations often do not have a grasp of just how prevalent, powerful, and important social networking is to this demographic group.

"In my research, I found that 97% of the iGeneration owns a computer and 75% are on Facebook or other social networking sites," says Adam Brodowski, a design student at Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, U.S. "I also found that they are all hypertaskers who do multiple things all at once. Eating dinner, text messaging, doing homework and watching TV are all strung together. They are also very comfortable with technology and the Internet. They run personal blogs, surf the web all day long, email back and forth and so on. Most importantly, they enjoy creating content to fuel the
web and be noticed."

Brodowski's concept appliance is Sook, a wireless kitchen device that generates, displays, and shares recipes, bringing social networking into the kitchen. A series of sensors detect what food is on, or near, the Sook cutting board and measure the food's weight and moisture.

Sook also has an electronic tongue, to digitize tastes of foods and analyze them so that the ingredients can be combined in a pleasing way. As an on-screen recipe is built, the user can rearrange it, add spices, start timers and look up ingredients. After it is prepare, the unit can take a photo and upload it with the recipe to a social networking site. Sook is waterproof, so it can be washed in the sink like a plate.

The iGeneration also uses mobile devices more than any other consumer segment to come before it, and iGen product designers are quite familiar with the mobile device limitations.  Perhaps most notable is the problems with power<battery technology simply hasn't advanced as far or as fast as other digital electronics technologies. Engineering efforts have focused on reducing device power usage to make the most of current battery capabilities, and there has been some work on harnessing ambient energy<solar energy and the kinetic energy generated simply by the movement of the device as the user caries it around.

Design Lab finalist Apor Püspöki, a product design student at Moholy-Nagy University of Arts and Design in Budapest, Hungary, exploits kinetic energy as an energy source in his E-bag, which cools beverages and snacks. The rotating handle of the bag is attached to a dynamo; as the user walks and swings the bag it charges a storage battery. The cooling system uses Peltier technology, a kind of solid-state heat pump. It transfers heat from one side of the device to the other side, and is often found in tiny cooling units mounted directly on CPUs too keep them cool. E-bag's cooling status is indicated by three LEDs. Longer walks result in more cooling energy generated and thus cooler contents.
"I wanted to make a point about the way urban life goes with increased
energy consumption," says Püspöki.

Design Lab finalist E-bag is powered by user-generated kinetic energy.

High Design, New Functionality

Slovenian appliance maker Gorenje was also thinking about highly flexible placement when it developed Qube concept appliances, unveiled in late 2008 at the Home Appliances @ IFA trade show in Berlin. Gorenje foresees big changes in kitchen interior design, with plumbing and power outlets concealed in floors and ceilings to allow for “floating” appliances. Refrigerators, for example, will be designed to ignore standard placement against walls. The open, airy look of interior designs is enhanced by a collapsible cooktop (hob) with integrated kitchen hood, which is intended to look like a piece of art when folded away.

Other concept appliances are emerging directly from academic R&D, where the focus is more on function than aesthetics. AgBot is one, unveiled in December 2008 by a group of students from Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Department of Computer Science. They turned a robotic lawn mower into a multitasker. It acts as a seed dispenser, high-torque auger, and mobile fertilizer tank. This solar powered device can move at six miles per hour for four hours, using artificial intelligence, Bluetooth, and GPS to find its way.

The AgBot gets even more interesting after dark, when its role changes from lawn care to security guard. For patrol duty it has a night vision camera with a 360° swivel, a high-frequency alarm system, and a motion detector with selectable sensitivity. By the time the intruder hears the AgBot alarm, his picture has already been taken and e-mailed to the property owner.

One important goal of the students as they strive to transform the AgBot concept into a retail product is to offer fully customizable home robots. Consumers will order only the features they want. The flexibility of the platform will make more tasks feasible with minor adjustments. The robot might, for example, retrieve mail and packages delivered to the home.

Gorenje Qube appliances allow for an open, airy interior design.

Change at Home

The needs of older adults may benefit from today’s conceptual appliances more so than young adults. The baby boomer population is going to require massive healthcare resources, and there is predicted to be big demand for anything that can free seniors from healthcare facilities or dependence on other people. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers recently developed a voice-controlled wheelchair that learns a building and can transport the user wherever needed (GPS can’t be used reliably inside many buildings). No electronic mapping is needed; the wheelchair learns building locations simply by being taken on an introductory guided tour. The concept is being tested in a Massachusetts nursing home.

Home health maintenance is becoming more connected, too, often linking directly to security systems or doctors’ monitoring services.

It remains to be seen how accurately these concepts reflect the reality of future home appliances, but it is safe to say that the iGens, the boomers, and every consumer in the middle is going to demand connected devices that foster a sense of personal, and global, safety.

Design Lab 2009 winner, the Flatshare fridge.


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