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Domestic tasks go digital

Household chores get a makeover as consumers outfit homes with fresh designs and functional technology. Photos: Futuristic homes

Though not the Jetsons' kitchen quite yet, domestic spaces being created today are hipper and more tech-savvy than ever.

Small kitchen gadgets like coffee makers that forecast the weather receive more attention, but it's the oft-ignored category of large appliances that's getting a jolt of energy.

Large luxury appliances are one of the fastest-growing categories in the home. As U.S. families spend tens of thousands of dollars on home remodeling, the demand for high-tech products that combine entertainment and design is growing.

Unit sales of refrigerators priced higher than $1,500--the most expensive category--increased 29.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to data collected by the NPD Group. That marks a substantial increase, said analyst Peter Goldman.

U.S. consumers spend approximately $12.2 million a year on refrigerators, according to numbers self-reported by consumers to The NPD Group. Of that, unit sales have increased only minimally in price ranges other than the most expensive, and have actually decreased more than 20 percent in the $100 to $300 category.

It's because of such statistics that companies like Matsushita Electric, known as Panasonic in the U.S., are considering getting into the burgeoning U.S. appliance market. The , showcased in late October, is a prototype of an environmentally friendly and futuristic house. Motorized dish racks rise out of countertops and plasma TVs are ensconced in a wall in every room for watching movies and even reading the news.

Though drastically outside of most homeowners' price ranges, the concepts present in the Eco-Home and the in Alamo, Calif., are at least indications of what homes could look like in years to come. Not only are appliances and home products becoming automated and energy-efficient, they also come saddled with high price tags.

"Consumers seem to be migrating toward the premium end of the market," said NPD's Goldman. "You're hearing about a lot more kitchen remodels, entertaining in the kitchen. The kitchen is becoming a showplace for home entertainment."

The kitchen as entertainment center, in some cases, is being taken literally, as top-tier television manufacturers carve LCD (liquid crystal display) screens into refrigerator doors. But beyond displaying TV shows and movies, the screens are also used to deliver weather forecasts, show digital pictures (in place of snapshots tacked down with magnets), keep a master calendar, receive text messages and voice mail, and in some cases, hold a bank of recipes that can be dialed into.

Electronics companies like LG and Samsung are thinking outside the white box when it comes to the domestic space. Seemingly staid categories, like laundry and refrigeration, are seeing a boost in interest from consumers and manufacturers alike.

In the Domestic Appliance category at the Consumer Electronics Show taking place in January, refrigerators and laundry systems take up almost half of the show's Innovations Awards handed out by the Industrial Designers Society of America.

The Wireless ICE Refrigerator from Samsung, set to debut right before CES, has an LCD screen that can stream a television signal wirelessly, as well as AM/FM radio. The screen also pops out and can continue to receive a TV signal up to 200 feet away.

The concept has been done before, but wasn't well-received. LG came out with a fridge that had a laptop computer in it several years back, and it didn't sell particularly well. "We learned a lot from that," said Tim Kavanaugh, LG's director of digital appliances. "A lot of people used it for the TV function that was on there, and we also determined that people weren't willing to pay $9,000 for that."

Samsung had a similar experience with its TV-fridge combo. At about $8,000, "the price was really out there," said Tony Wisniewski, Samsung home appliance marketing manager. The company made some changes, including the placement of the 10.1-inch screen, moving it from the eye level of a 5-year-old to that of the average adult. Wisniewski said Samsung believes this one will sell better, particularly at the lower price, enabled by a cheaper manufacture process and refined television technology. Both Samsung and LG's LCD fridges sell for $3,499. Besides technological innovation, design-wise, kitchen trends have come a long way since the avocado-green icebox. The most popular fridges in the U.S. right now are stainless steel, but European and Asian designers and buyers are much more adventuresome. For instance, light blue is one of the most popular refrigerator colors in Korea, said LG's Kavanaugh.

"There are people who are spending a lot of money to redecorate their laundry rooms."
--Tim Kavanaugh, director of digital appliances, LG

But a color like that isn't making its way into American kitchens since its unlikely consumers would be able to find a matching oven and range, which is generally the American preference, he said. Italian appliance maker Smeg sells iceboxes in literally every color of the rainbow, including a multicolor striped model and one bearing the Union Jack.

But U.S. consumers are being more adventurous with color and technology in another domestic space: the laundry room. Kenmore sells a laundry line in bright orange and midnight blue, Samsung makes a washer/dryer combo in champagne and brilliant blue, and LG has its own cherry-red version. Suddenly, picking out a machine to wash clothes is like shopping for a cell phone--trendy colors are winning out over sedate, traditional hues.

"Thirty percent of the laundry we sell is in color," said LG's Kavanaugh. Part of that is because the washing machine is no longer shuttered in a basement or a garage, but is moving closer to the living area where it is more visible. That, in turn is because of technology that keeps noise to a minimum. "If it's quieter and more beautiful, it's nice to have closer to your kitchen?there are people who are spending a lot of money to redecorate their laundry rooms."

LG's foray into colorful and eco-friendly washing is the TROMM SteamWasher, a concept that originated in Korea. It looks like a traditional washer, but the intake water is routed into an extra chamber, where it is heated to create steam. Users can opt for a "steam-only" extra cycle, which cuts down on water and detergent use. LG doesn't cut the cost, however. The washer starts at $1,299, but for blue or red, the cost goes up to $1,599.

Electrolux is taking the no-water-or-detergent idea several steps further. Though still in the concept stage, the , which doesn't look anything like a traditional washer or dryer, doesn't even use any liquid at all to clean clothes, but ultraviolet-C light and free-radical oxygen, which kills viruses and bacteria and breaks down carbon-based compounds like dirt. It's a "washing" machine made specifically for clothing hewn from , also still in the concept phase.

The future of refrigeration technology is also bright--literally. Samsung's Wisniewski says the next consumer-friendly innovation on the horizon is a sensor that automatically turns on the fridge light as a person approaches. Consumers can also expect RFID technology in which fridges will remind them what food staples they need to refresh and if they have enough milk for that cookie recipe.

And although not nearly as exciting visually, energy-efficient technology is the more immediate goal, said Wisniewski. "It's a constant battle and get energy efficiency up and make compressor smaller and more efficient."