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Tech group cooks up wired kitchen

The Internet Home Alliance, which includes HP and IBM, is set to serve up a Web-connected kitchen that lets people control appliances via cell phone or the Internet.

    Frazzled working families could soon have some techie help in their kitchen, thanks to a new test project by a group of companies that includes Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

    The Internet Home Alliance, a group hoping to expand the market for funky connected devices into the home, is set to unveil a prototype of a Web-connected kitchen that lets people control their appliances remotely.

    The test setup, due to be ready in two weeks, will consist of an Internet-enabled Polara refrigerated range from Whirlpool, a "flipscreen entertainment center" from Icebox, integration services from IBM, a printer from HP, customer services from Sears, Roebuck, and Internet grocery services from Peapod.

    It's not quite Rosey the Robot, the mechanized maid who kept the household running in "The Jetsons," but it could be a start down the path of using technology to make daily household chores easier to manage.

    People testing the connected kitchen will be able to program the oven to refrigerate and then cook a meal so that it's ready at dinner time. If they're running late, they can adjust cooking times via an Internet or cell phone connection. And they can turn off the oven from a cell phone and search the Web for recipes, which can then be printed.

    The group will show off the "Mealtime Pilot" at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show and Conference in Orlando, Fla., next month and is in the process of picking 20 families in the Boston area to test the devices. It will complete a report on the project in December.

    Although tech companies have generally snubbed computers in the kitchen in favor of gee-whiz products such as game machines and laptops, many are starting to eye the market as a potential gold mine, hoping people will pay for products that make mundane daily tasks like preparing dinner easier and more efficient.

    Bill Gates spent much of his speech at the last Comdex confab talking about smart objects for the home, including connected kitchen appliances. And kitchen gadgets such as Tonight's Menu and the Icebox device were among the stars of the recent Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. What's more, some computer stores have begun stocking LG Electronics' Multi-Media Refrigerator, a convergence device that can store recipes and messages from family members and track its own maintenance.

    Although products such as "smart" refrigerators and kitchen Web devices have long been derided as uncool, Internet Home Alliance Vice President Tim Woods said they should appeal directly to the market segment that makes most of the major purchasing decisions in a household: mothers.

    "Let's face it, this (project) is about mom, and moms are a huge opportunity in the marketplace," Woods said. "Nobody's ever gone after the kitchen in this way."

    But Woods said it's important to test and retest the gadgets to make sure they work, because moms don't have time for bugs and glitches.

    "Kids and early adopters tend to put up with things like that," Woods said. "Mom doesn't put up with poorly executed technologies or interfaces."

    So far, however, kitchen devices have not proven lucrative. Devices from Microsoft, Intel and 3Com have flopped in recent years. This time around, however, supporters are hoping that handhelds, intelligent cell phones and the digital music revolution have acclimated people to accessing the Internet on things other than PCs.

    Price has also been an issue. LG's Multimedia Refrigerator, for example, costs about $8,000. The Polaris and the Icebox retail for $1,800 and $2,300, respectively. Internet Home Alliance representatives said that as with any technology, prices are expected to drop with time and as more people buy the products.