Why mullions mattered at CES 2016

Maybe you've never heard the term before, but mullions were super important in Las Vegas this week.

The mighty mullion.

James Martin/CNET

When people ask me what the most interesting thing I saw at CES this week was, I can answer in a single word.

Mullions.

What the heck is a mullion? Great question.

A mullion is a vertical strip of building material used to divide an opening in two, and perhaps provide structural support. You'll see them in windows, in doorways -- and in refrigerators.

You probably know that refrigerator doors use rubber to create a cold-saving seal around the fridge's outer frame when it's closed. But what about French door fridges, with doors that open from the middle? What are those middle edges supposed to seal against?

That's where mullions come in. They stay attached to the inner edge of one of the doors, keeping out of your way when the fridge is open. When the doors close, the mullion flips flush down the center of the fridge, creating a rigid surface down the middle for the doors to seal against. They're tricky like that.

Samsung's ambitious Family Hub Refrigerator.

James Martin/CNET

So, why did mullions matter this week at CES? Again -- terrific question.

The simple answer is that mullions got smart this week. Specifically, I'm talking about the mullions in Samsung's Wi-Fi-connected Family Hub Refrigerator. Each one is packed with a trio of cameras that snap a picture of your groceries every time the door closes. Pull out Samsung's app while you're out at the store, and you'll be able to check whether or not you need more milk. Thanks, mullion!

Now here's the really important part. Despite staggering near-term growth projections, the smart home is still in the very early stages -- and it isn't likely to reach its full potential until people see enough value to buy into connected home tech for the long term.

The Family Hub fridge and other fridges like it are trying to make that case to consumers, trying to get them to buy into the smart home of the future.

At our yearly CES Smart Home Panel, Yoon C. Lee, Samsung's Vice President of Innovation, described the Korean conglomerate's "hub everywhere" strategy of incorporating the building blocks of tomorrow's smart homes into the appliances and gadgets of today. The fridge, he said, is a perfect candidate for that sort of tech since it's the only appliance in the home that stays powered 24-7.

The Family Hub Fridge was one of the most talked-about pieces of tech this week at CES -- but CES is filled with tech insiders and geeks like me who spend way too much time thinking about refrigerators. The real question is whether or not this connected fridge can connect with consumers.

If it does, give at least a little bit of credit to the mullion.

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