x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The domestic appliance of science

White goods are no longer just the realm of basic functionality as technology spreads to refrigerators, ovens and even the humble vacuum cleaner.

Vacuum cleaners, such as this one from Samsung, are among the latest home appliances getting smart features. Rainer Jensen / EPA
Vacuum cleaners, such as this one from Samsung, are among the latest home appliances getting smart features. Rainer Jensen / EPA

Not sure what to make for dinner tonight? Ask your refrigerator.

Earlier this year, Samsung announced that it was expanding its line of home appliances with some new high-tech offerings.

One such product: a 0.9 cubic metre refrigerator that includes a touchscreen tablet.

Known as the T9000, this fridge provides access to a suite of apps so family members can share recipes or create grocery lists that automatically synch to their smartphones. It even displays notifications when certain foods or leftovers become out of date, and it can suggest recipes a home cook might want to try based on which ingredients are inside the refrigerator.

Not everyone, though, is impressed with these kinds of features.

One online commentator noted that he could buy a similar 24.5cm tablet for US$130 (Dh477) on eBay and then mount it on any refrigerator, plus he could take the slate anywhere with him outside of the home.

"The LCD screen on this product is just a lame accessory," he added.

While so-called smart appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines have been around for a few years in various forms, they have failed to catch on with most consumers. Sales within this sector generated just $613 million last year, according to market data from Pike Research.

More manufacturers are expected to release smart appliances in the coming years, although it will take time to grow the market. In 2020, smart appliance sales are forecast to total $34.9 billion, Pike Research estimates.

"People are looking to more integration between home appliances and the internet," says Anirud Raha, home appliances product sales manager for LG Electronics Gulf. "That's the way the market is going to drive in the future.

"We have existing products in other regions," Mr Raha adds.

"We're exploring the possibility of introducing those products in the [Arabian] Gulf as well."

Part of the reason smart appliances have not been more widely adopted in Europe and the United States already is that they are considered to be premium models - with premium price points to match.

Some of Samsung's Wi-Fi enabled fridges, for instance, feature 20.3cm touchscreen monitors and sell in the range of $2,699 to $3,699. The T9000, which Samsung says will be available later this spring, will retail for $3,999.

Appliances with certain smart features are still being released in the UAE, so some manufacturers are still waiting on sales results to determine how successful their launch has been in this region.

LG Electronics, for one, says it is in the process of introducing a new line of fridges that will include air purifiers meant to remove odour, bacteria and fungi spores from the inside of each unit. These models, which will start at Dh1,999, are supposed to prevent foods from smelling like one another so that your fruit custard never features that tinge of garlic.

Ever since Rosie the robotic house-cleaner rolled on to the scene in the US cartoon series The Jetsons in the 1960s, some homeowners have wanted more technologically savvy appliances to keep things tidy and fresh.

The Roomba certainly garnered some interest when the round, robotic vacuum debuted within the US in 2002. Since then its manufacturer, iRobot, has spun out numerous models, including half a dozen different vacuums that now sell for $350 to $700. Each one moves around the room while relying on sensors to "see" and then sweep up dirt and dust.

Some of the latest models in this sector now also feature technology that enables them to automatically empty a trash bag and re-enter a dock for recharging. It may come as no surprise, then, that those individuals who have already purchased a robotic vacuum cleaner typically have done so for the convenience.

Other early adopters within this category tend to buy anything new and innovative, regardless of the price.

"Then there are people who are obsessed with the cleanliness of their home, and people who have pets and just need constant cleaning," says Debra Mednick, an executive director and home industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Although more robo-cleaners have rolled on to the market, their average price has remained stuck at about $230 for the past couple of years because more expensive models continue to be released.

"It's not like in consumer electronics, [where] the price continues to erode until the next technology comes out," says Ms Mednick.

"You're still talking about a small, niche market."

Revenues earned from the sales of robotic vacuums totalled only $185m last year, which equates to just 805,000 units sold in the US, according to the NPD Group. That compares with 17.1 million upright vacuums that were sold during the same time, although there are also other kinds of models, including canister vacuums that sold 1.4 million units.

To stimulate growth in the smart appliances category, manufacturers have turned to faster-growing emerging markets such as the Arabian Gulf.

In the UAE, LG Electronics began taking pre-orders of its latest Hom-Bot robotic vacuum at the end of last month. This cleaning device features integrated cameras and infrared sensors to map out a room and detect obstacles before automatically finding its way into hard-to-reach corners.

Past models were round in shape, although this particular one has been made square.

"The round ones are not very apt at reaching all the corners," says Mr Raha. "The new design reaches all the corners."

Which is exactly what Rosie would have wanted.