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Fridges with webcams!

October 22nd, 2003

I’ve just had my first experience of public WiFi (I’ve had a little home Airport network for some time) and I think this may be, as others have suggested, the Next Big Thing. (First poster to say “Huh! I was doing this five years ago!” does not get a prize!)

It’s still expensive (though I understand there are ways of getting access for free if you know what to do) and coverage is still very limited. The other problem in getting properly untethered is the limited battery life of full-scale laptops – alternatives with miniature screens and keyboards/keypads are not for me.

Having got enthusiastic over one technology, I have to maintain my generally technosceptic stance by debunking another, and what better than yet another Internet-enabled fridge story. This is one about a proposed fridge with a webcam inside it. I’ve got used to the idea of bedroom and bathroom webcams by now, but a fridge webcam sounds as if it could be truly gross!

In any case, this got me thinking: What is it with gee-whiz technology journalists and fridges ? I suppose the answer is that it’s marginally less implausible than an Internet-ready microwave oven. But as a public service, I’m going to attempt a once-for-all debunking of the idea of Internet-enabled white goods and similar appliances.

There are two potential applications worth considering. The first is the idea of a fridge that will check its contents, note shortfalls and time-expired items and order replacements from the supermarket. This is silly for two reasons. First, the fridge can’t tell whether the milk is all gone or whether the kids forgot to put it back after making their breakfast cereal. Second, a superior technology is available now if anyone wants it. All you need is a barcode scanner and off-the-shelf inventory software. You swipe items as they enter the inventory and again when they are used. Assuming the existence of stores set up for automated phone orders, the last bit would be easy.

This approach covers all grocery items not just refrigerated goods, and is cheap and relatively easy. If you’re prepared to work a bit harder you can home-brew the software, do the data entry manually and you get the whole thing for free. My Dad actually implemented such a system a decade or so ago and ran it for several years, but got tired of it in the end. For most people, even cheap and off the shelf, this would not be worth the effort.

The other possibility is remote control – telling the oven to turn on an hour before you get home for dinner and so on. Again this is pretty much feasible already, using home automation systems such as X-10 and again very few people bother. The problem is that a disciplined person can achieve most of the required functionality with simple timers and a disorganised person will generally find it easier to wait until they get home.

The big exception to all of this is communications and entertainment. I’m not talking here about the silly idea of convergence in which the TV set, computer and phone would merge (if you think about, the potential benefit of this is the saving of one screen). Rather its the idea that instead of having to negotiate a badly-designed interface, different for each system, whenever you want to control, say, a video, you should be able to manage all your digital media from a system designed for flexible control, that is, a computer.

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