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High-tech gear that could revolutionize kitchens

Last Updated November 10, 2006

Samsung's POPCON (short for popular convergence) refrigerator.

In the world of The Jetsons , appliances think, talk and interact in a chaotic household. Star Trek: The Next Generation's replicators produce piping hot, perfectly cooked food in seconds. These space-age appliances might live in the realm of fantasy, but some of these ideas are not so far fetched.

Today, manufacturers including GE, Maytag, Samsung and Whirlpool are partnering with the likes of Cisco, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems to create futuristic appliances that can keep notes, generate recipe ideas, calculate cooking times and heat food at warp speed. Oh — and some of these kitchen gadgets can even play movies while you wait.

Many of the real whiz-bang ideas are just prototypes from researchers who like see how far they can push the intelligence quotient of appliances. While the prototypes show that the ideas work, the average consumer isn't quite ready to invest thousands of dollars in appliances that start cooking with a call from a cellphone or are networked to a laptop computer, so there's not enough demand at present to actually turn the technology into commercial products.

But there are some kitchen appliances coming to market now that integrate pretty cool high-tech gadgetry that can make consumers' domestic lives a bit easier.

James Politeski, executive director of sales and marketing for the home appliance division at Samsung Canada in Toronto, reports that barcode scanners integrated with refrigerators and microwaves are a category of cutting-edge kitchen gear that's just about ready for prime time.

"There are prototypes around for refrigerators that will take the information from the barcode [on food packaging] to tell you what is in the fridge and when food items will expire," he says. "If it's linked to the internet, you can push a button and find recipes based on what's in your fridge and generate a list of any missing ingredients."

Microwave reads barcodes

Samsung launched a barcode-reading microwave in partnership with a grocery chain in Europe. When a frozen item is scanned, the microwave estimates and sets the proper cooking time automatically.

The company is also ready to announce the POPCON (short for popular convergence) refrigerator. You might say it offers the ultimate in fridge magnets. This wireless-enabled appliance features a removable LCD (liquid crystal display screen) that can be used to leave voice messages, post notes, manage a family calendar and even play TV shows or DVDs.

The latest dishwashers have built-in sensors that can estimate how dirty the dishes are, select the right water softness and cycles for the types of dishes (plastic or china), and dispense the correct amount of detergent to reduce waste.

On the more exotic front, wine lovers might be impressed with something like GE's newest intelligent wine vault — a free-standing appliance with host of features programmed at the factory.

Interactive panel

Product details such as the name, vineyard and year can be entered on the interactive panel outside the unit to generate barcodes for each bottle. The data from these scans can be used to create content lists, maturity charts, map layouts of products, and suggestions for pairing food and wine. All the data is backed up on a GE server through an online connection so it's never lost, even if the power goes out temporarily.

Even at a price tag of $35,000 US, there's been huge growth in demand for the wine vault in larger new homes where value-added amenities are becoming more popular," GE's Allison Eckelkamp says.

On the cooking front, ovens that combine convection, thermal and microwave technologies can cook foods five times faster than conventional ones. And induction cooktops � which have been used in Europe for more than 15 years � are now making their way to North American kitchens.

What's so hot about induction? Well, the fact that it's so cool.

Rather than the burners generating the temperature, induction technology creates an electro-magnetic response in iron or stainless steel cooking vessels. The "burner" stays cool to the touch from start to finish. The technology is reported to be 25 to 30 per cent more energy efficient than a standard stovetop — and it's fast. A large stockpot of water can be brought to a boil in as little as two minutes.

Interest expected to grow

According to David Amiel, vice-president of sales and marketing for Maroline Distributing Inc. in Montreal, manufacturers are expecting big interest in these high-tech cooktops in the next 18 to 24 months as they move from being a novelty to a practical "must have" in the North American kitchen.

"People are seeing induction cooktops as the latest and greatest 'new toy,'" says Amir Girgis, managing director of Diva de Provence in Toronto. "The controls are so precise you can pretty well adjust the energy to create the number of bubbles you want to see boiling."

But as for some of the more sophisticated technology and "way out" prototypes being developed now, Politeski says, the concept of truly "smart" appliances helping out around the average kitchen is still the stuff of the future.

"Refrigerators and microwaves that talk to you is very cool stuff," he says. "But [adoption] is probably years away. For them to become a reality, it requires a mindset that appreciates the value."

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