How Does a Smart Refrigerator Work — And What’s on the Horizon?

The idea of a “smart” refrigerator isn’t anything new. In fact, back in 1957, a film envisioning the year 2000 included a reference to a computerized refrigerator that could keep food fresh for up to six months and automatically dispense the ingredients needed to complete a recipe via voice controls.  While today’s smart fridges don’t have exactly those features, they have come a very long way from the iceboxes of days past. Yet for all the hype about these appliances, there are still questions about their usefulness, and how to best make use of the technology to appeal to consumers and provide real value.

Smart Refrigerators: A Short History

The first commercially available smart refrigerator actually appeared 17 years ago. In 2000, LG released a model that included a barcode scanner. As you put items in and out of the fridge, you could scan the manufacturer’s barcode to keep a running record. While this was certainly interesting, most people found the system cumbersome and not terribly useful. Few wanted to spend several thousand dollars on a refrigerator just so it could tell them that the milk had been put in and taken out 26 times.

Early smart refrigerators highlighted one of the major issues with internet-connected appliances in general: They require too much user input to be truly useful. Do you really want to scan every item as you move it in and out of the fridge? Since that first smart fridge, developers have tried to come up with other options to make the appliance more useful.

For example, one fridge used RFID technology to automatically read barcodes of items, removing the user element. The problem, though, was that not all food products are equipped with RFID technology. Another model used sensors to determine whether a product was being moved, and to send an alert when the weight of that product was getting low, ostensibly to alert the owner to the need to purchase more. The problem there was that the sensors couldn’t detect specifically which items were being removed, and which needed to be replenished.

Some of these issues are being overcome by the latest smart refrigerator models, which have interior cameras. Not sure if you’re low on milk? Simply use an app to peek inside your fridge and see if it’s time to stock up on 2 percent. These latest smart fridge models are usually equipped with a large color screen on the exterior as well, allowing you to make shopping lists, leave notes, and access the internet right from your fridge. By equipping the appliance with an efficient microcontroller and a Wi-Fi connection, users gain convenience and potentially save money by keeping better track of their grocery purchases.

Making Refrigerators Smarter

Clearly, smart refrigerators have come a long way. However, are they really “smart” yet? Many experts say no, for the simple fact that even with cameras and voice-activated list-making features, the appliance still requires user intervention to work. That is why the next generation of smart refrigerators is shifting the focus away from the contents of the fridge, and toward a more effortless design that provides information that we can actually use.

For instance, while you might not be interested in how many times the fridge is opened and closed, you are probably interested in making your appliance run as efficiently as possible, and when something is going wrong that needs to be repaired or replaced. That is why developers are working on smart refrigerators that are designed to work with smart meters, so they automatically run most efficiently at peak times. For example, most refrigerators run an auto defrost cycle as needed; with a smart fridge, that cycle, which uses more energy, can be put off until electricity rates are lower, lowering the electric bill.

Developers are also working on ways to implement technology like that in smart thermostats. Over time, your fridge could learn your patterns, such as the fact that you purchase milk every four days, and automatically add items to your shopping list, send alerts about sales, or show you how much you spend over a defined period, so you can better manage your grocery budget. The idea, though, is that this analysis will take place automatically, with little to no intervention from the user.

There are other issues with smart appliances, such as questions about privacy and the need for specific functions, but the fact is we have come a very long way. It won’t be too long before smart refrigerators are actually smart, and not just something “cool” to add to the kitchen.

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