Master Of Your Domain

Talking To Your Toaster

On the horizon are a number of smart appliances, or information appliances, that gain their intelligence largely from the Internet. In this post-PC era, smart appliances will give home dwellers access to much-needed information anywhere, any time.

Zip forward a few years to a time when, perhaps, your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule so you can plan your morning over a cup of joe. Or your refrigerator will sense the compressor is about to blow and contact the manufacturer via e-mail. They're simple yet smart appliances with intelligent functions that could make a real difference in your life or business.

Already, smart appliances like so-called Internet microwaves and Internet refrigerators are hitting the market. Devices like the Internet refrigerator let you send a quick e-mail to a client while your pasta is cooling, surf over to Virtual Vineyards to check out the best in fine wine or gather more info about the pesto penne you're preparing to cook.

OK, so perhaps not all of us relish the idea of connecting to the Internet from our toaster. No doubt the key to success for these kinds of devices won't just be their niftiness, but their inherent usefulness. "The question is whether the right level of consumer usage [can be] built into each product, not just whether it's cool," Schmidt says.

Some computer-based products like CoolMan (http://www.coolmaninc.com) already intelligently integrate the Internet into the home. CoolMan is essentially a talking computer that provides the whole family with Internet access, as well as some home automation features. Functions can be controlled via the in-house computer system, by voice commands picked up by cordless microphones throughout the house--even by cell phone.

If you're into multitasking, simply issue the command to have CoolMan read your e-mail to you while you're shaving in the morning; the command will be picked up by a microphone and e-mail read back to you via a 900MHz cordless speakerphone in your bathroom. You can control all kinds of household functions like your garage door, thermostat, security and lighting. Enter your preferred schedule into CoolMan, or issue the command verbally to cut the lights or turn up the heat.

A complete, end-to-end hardware/software solution, CoolMan consists of a Pentium III 450MHz computer with 8GB hard-drive space, 80MB of RAM and a video-conferencing camera, as well as a Microsoft 900MHz speakerphone. CoolMan is available for a flat fee of $2,999 or a one-time $499 payment and a monthly $39 service charge (including Internet access and all upgrades).

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