As computer chip technology grows ever smaller, more powerful and less expensive, virtually everything that can be computerized will be computerized, at least experimentally.
A range of new functions will be built into traditional appliances and systems, both in the home and in the office. The key will be user friendliness: making the appliances and their new capabilities simple to understand and operate.
Manufacturers worry, however, that in many cases consumers might see these high-tech appliances as gadgets rather than as legitimate labor-saving devices. Developing appliances and systems with remarkable new capabilities will be no problem; the trick is to make sure consumers want and know how to use the highly computerized products.
For example, a voice-controlled microwave oven that opens and shuts its doors when you command it to is one of a number of user-friendly appliances that could be on the market soon in the United States. But manufacturers are trying to find out first if the public is ready for such equipment.
At Pennsylvania State University, associate professor of industrial engineering Andris Freivalds is conducting response tests to see if consumers will accept the voice-activated microwave as well as several other high-tech home appliances now being developed by Daewoo Electronics Co. in Seoul. Daewoo is also working on a remote-controlled vacuum cleaner.
The microwave oven can be programmed to open and shut its door on voice command. When the command for opening the door is spoken, the door pops open and a tray slides out; on the command to close, the tray slides back in and the door shuts. The microwave also has two electronic display screens on which prerecorded recipes can be viewed, together with a picture of the completed dish.
The vacuum cleaner has an auxiliary engine that attaches to its underside and can be driven by remote control. The vacuum cleaner can be guided forward, backward, left and right.
Other high-tech consumer products such as voice-activated telephones and cameras are already available. For example, Toshiba is now marketing a voice-activated telephone in Japan that will dial a telephone number when the caller picks up the receiver and says the name of the person being called. For the initial input of a name, the telephone's user says a name three times to give the machine a range of voice-spectrum patterns. Then, when the caller picks up the receiver and says the name, the telephone can recognize the name even though it may sound slightly different from the original version.
Another new product in Japan is Konica's compact camera that takes pictures in response to sound. The camera is placed on a tripod, from where it automatically points itself toward sounds it picks up and snaps a photo. The result may a totally candid photo at a party or a photo taken at the moment a baby laughs.
Computerized "add-on" technology will enable existing home systems and appliances to be modified so that they can respond to voice commands. Mastervoice Inc. of Los Alamitos has developed a product called Butler in a Box. The computerized system allows homeowners to control up to 32 systems and appliances--ranging from heating and air conditioning, security systems and indoor or outdoor lighting to lawn sprinklers and radios--by using simple voice commands. The "butler" can understand oral commands from four different voices and can be programmed to give a voice-synthesized response.
Freivalds' tests at Penn State will gather the responses of both adults and students to some of these high-tech products and will send their evaluations and suggestions to their manufacturer. He believes that the average consumer would find such appliances useful and time-saving. "I think the public is ready for them," he says.
He also notes that such appliances "would be useful to the elderly or physically disabled, allowing them more control over their world."