Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

What is an internet fridge – and why are LG and Samsung so obsessed with them?

Ever find yourself in need of a weather forecast on your fridge? What about built-in speakers?

A model stands by an LG InstaView ThinQ refrigerator before the 2020 CES tech show. AP
A model stands by an LG InstaView ThinQ refrigerator before the 2020 CES tech show. AP

Some technology is created to solve problems and to make our lives easier: the pocket calculator, the microwave oven, the telephone answering machine. Then there’s the tech that creates a desire for something we didn’t know we needed, then immediately fulfils it, such as the satnav, gaming console or the Sony Walkman. And then there’s the “internet fridge”.

For more than 20 years we’ve been told that futuristic fridges will be the next big thing, a kitchen appliance that does more than merely chill food. But an entire generation of consumers has shown themselves to be woefully uninterested.

What is an internet fridge?

These fridges come equipped with screens that tell you what the weather’s like outside. Digital notes to replace bits of paper secured by magnets. Built-in speakers for you to listen to your favourite sounds while cooking. Apps that might display, say, a range of tempting recipes. But while we’ve shown ourselves to be fascinated by all kinds of unusual gadgets over the years, from the Tamagotchi to the Oculus Rift, it would seem that we’re happy for our fridge to be, well, just a fridge.

There’s no let up, however, in fridge innovation. The annual CES event in Las Vegas is a showcase for all kinds of new technology, and always features at least one internet fridge. This year’s show, held between January 7 and 10, was no exception: Samsung and LG both touted AI-powered fridges equipped with cameras that claim to be able to recognise the food within.

The basic idea of putting internet connectivity on a fridge still seems both very obvious and a very long way from being popular. I sometimes wonder whether LG and Samsung know the world is laughing at them, and I hope so.

Roo Reynolds

Samsung’s Family Hub fridge comes complete with a voice assistant, smart home connectivity, speakers and a huge screen that can mirror whatever is on your television or phone. LG’s InstaView also has a screen, which, by connecting to cameras inside the fridge, lets you see what’s inside without opening the door.

If you’re wondering: “Well, why don’t I just open the door?” then you’re not alone. The internet fridge remains a stubbornly undesirable object – and with a rumoured cost of about $5,000 (Dh18,362) for the latest models, maybe that’s not surprising.

“The global consumer refrigerator market is worth $65bn in retail value and highly commoditised,” says Jack Wetherill, an analyst at market research firm Futuresource. “It’s really tough for brands to make their products stand out from the crowd, so the promise of a device that will make your life easier is one that LG and Samsung have pursued for several years. The questions, as with all technology, are: does it work, and does it make enough difference to be worth paying the extra? So far, evidently not.”

Why consumers simply do not care

A Tumblr blog featuring many of the iterations of internet fridge has been online since 2011. “Despite being the next-big-thing for many years, the basic idea of putting internet connectivity on a fridge still seems both very obvious and a very long way from being popular,” says its curator, Roo Reynolds. “I sometimes wonder whether LG and Samsung know the world is laughing at them, and I hope so. Presumably it’s becoming a market segment that big manufacturers feel they have to have a presence in. I’d love an invite to their no doubt well-funded innovation labs to have a chat.”

Samsung Electronics today unveiled the latest edition of its Family Hub refrigerator, with intelligent new features that automate meal planning and other daily tasks and deliver a more personalized experience. Courtesy Samsung
Samsung Electronics' latest edition of its Family Hub refrigerator, with intelligent new features that automate meal planning and other daily tasks and deliver a more personalised experience. Courtesy Samsung

The first glimpse of the internet fridge came back in 1998, a time before social media, smartphones or MP3 players. The Japanese company V-Sync unveiled a touchscreen fridge at the PC World Expo in Makuhari, boasting “more computing power than most home PCs, and separate compartments for fruit and vegetables”. Their vision of the fridge as a “command centre” for the connected home. They were right about the connected home, albeit 20 years early. They weren’t right about the fridge.

The following year at the Comdex computer show in Las Vegas, attendees were told of a time in the near future where they would call up the contents of a fridge on a computer screen, with the inventory having been kept via a barcode reader. (That “near future” has come and gone, and we still check the contents of the fridge by looking inside.) Electrolux, meanwhile, chose 1999 to unveil its Screenfridge, which allowed you to send and receive emails, pay bills and do personal banking. “The kitchen of the future cannot be that far away,” said a BBC report. But it was.

They may be smart, but they're also expensive

The South Korean firm LG established itself as the flag bearer of the modern fridge going into the 21st century. Its “internet Fridge” (2002) allowed you to watch TV, listen to the radio and access a constantly updated database of grocery prices – but only if you were willing to pay $17,000 (Dh62,500). The 2004 model added video calling, and an internal “map” of the fridge so you could keep track of what food was where.

By 2011 LG had labelled it the “Smart Refrigerator”, heralding the era of a fridge that could theoretically tell you what was inside. As it turns out, this is an idea that does resonate with consumers; a 2014 survey found that fridges whose contents could be monitored with a smartphone were the most popular of a whole range of “connected kitchen” appliances. But do any of us know anyone who owns one?

“The addition of cameras and smartphone connectivity does offer a prospect that many of us can relate to,” says Wetherill. “But there remain complexities about whether you can identify the contents if they are in containers, or hidden behind other items. The full might of artificial intelligence has been brought in to crack the problem, and if this is achieved then it promises the ability to trigger reminders to stock up on items that are running low. And refrigerator brands would also benefit from the rich stream of data about consumers’ food purchase and consumption habits.”

There is now slow but steady progress in smart home connectivity. Doorbells, lighting circuits, kettles and even toilet paper robots are all appearing in the average modern home. So, despite two decades of ridicule, is it possible that the era of the internet fridge is almost upon us? “It’ll be a few years yet before this level of smart functionality is in the mainstream fridge,” says Wetherill. “But as each CES goes by, the cynical comments of those attending the press conferences will likely turn into appreciative nods.”

Updated: January 9, 2020 05:50 PM

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