The household appliance of science

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

This month we’re going to talk about talking to your refrigerator.

When I write “talking to your refrigerator” I don’t mean literally — that kind of behaviour could well get you locked up (although curiously, most of us talk to our PCs and it is not considered unusual).

I have had cause to remonstrate with my new PC these past few weeks. I just bought a Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 8485Z. This is a 450MHz Pentium III running Windows 98, and about once a day the display freezes. This is weird because I know it is still running – it’s just that the display is literally frozen. If I hit the button on the keyboard, the machine goes to sleep. When I wake it, everything, including the screen, is working again!If anyone has a clue what is going on, please let me know.

(Voice-over by Rod Serling) “Imagine if you will, five years into the future. You buy a refrigerator, little knowing that it is inhabited by a demonic force…” Sorry, I got carried away.

You buy a refrigerator, take it home and plug it in. What happens? Well, it immediately starts to communicate through the power supply: Your house wiring has become a data network.

Powerline networking is available today in the form of the X10 system (although the data rate is low) and products such as Intelogis’s PassPort (which runs at a respectable 350Kbps). A number of vendors are looking to up the ante for powerline networking, and you can expect to see megabit data rates within the next few years.

So what is your refrigerator trying to do? Before it can do anything else, the fridge needs to see if it can find something intelligent to talk with.

Of course, the fridge shouldn’t be able to talk to anything outside your house, and I suspect the power meter will block any transmissions. However, the meter itself will note the refrigerator’s existence. Why? Because the power company can then keep track of what kinds of appliances you’re running for planning purposes.

What will the fridge talk to? My money is on your TV. Vendors are building all sorts of smarts into set-top boxes, which will ultimately merge with the televisions they drive. Given my five-year window, we can expect that these devices will be pretty powerful and versatile in their communications capabilities. (PCs will also be capable of handling this interaction, but smart TVs will be ubiquitous.)

The refrigerator will make itself known to the set-top box and offer you, through the set-top box, a URL. If you follow the URL, you’ll be taken to the manufacturer’s registration process — the set-top box will automatically provide your demographic details, if you wish, and record and manage all of the warranty data.

The registration process will also provide your set-top box with a program to monitor the refrigerator, and here my money is on something based on Sun’s Jini.

The downloaded monitoring program will communicate with the refrigerator, and should the fridge detect any deviation from normal operation, it will notify your controller (the set-top box or a PC) and provide a URL that can be used to inform the manufacturer of the problem.