Smart Stuff and Time Out

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Does anyone remember those battery-operated swizzle sticks that 1950s grown-ups thought were just so cool? Those do-dads had fat handles because they ran off D-cells and had no reason to exist so far as I can make out. Lately I've been catching up on some other consumer gadgets that make more sense. Maybe because they have sensors. There's this bear—but I'll get to it in a bit.

Wash Day
Three lucky families in Atlanta recently got to take Laundry Time for a test spin. This collaboration among Whirlpool, Panasonic, and Microsoft, under the aegis of the Internet Home Alliance, is tantamount to having someone come in and do your wash while you go have fun. Well, you do have to load the washer and eventually transfer its contents into the dryer. The selling point is that if you have an Internet-linked house you can go loaf under a tree and wait for reports via cell phone or computer. What the utility room can tell you is that the wash is finished, the filter is clogged, or the load is off balance. What you can send back is a command to start the washer in case you didn't want to listen to all the chugging, or to repeat the dryer's fluff cycle so you don't have to drag out the ironing board.

And Other Domestic Delights
There are dishwashers that actually sniff the basket contents to decide when everything's tidy rather than rely on a timer. And vacuum cleaners that adjust their suction according to the level of grime they detect (they'd be in constant high-whine mode in my house). Fancy microwave ovens weigh your bag of popcorn and regulate their temperature to eliminate all the unpopped kernels that, chewed inadvertently, fragment your molars.

On the Go
At the Tokyo Institute of Technology, researchers are working on a gizmo that analyzes odors thanks to 15 sensors, digitizes and records them, and then reproduces them by blending 96 chemicals and vaporizing the mixtures. The consumer angle is this: You could one day use your cell phone to take a whiff of something nice (or not!) and send this virtual nosegay to someone else with an equally talented phone. You'd sure want to check caller ID before answering what could be a Stink-O-Gram. Right now the device measures 2 by 3 feet, but you can bet on its coming miniaturization.

Little tots who are tuned into the Neopets Website can now go on vacation with clear consciences because they can feed and entertain their virtual pets remotely via cell phone. Perhaps that will prove out to be early training in responsibility.

And that Bear
I love this MIT bear! Designed to comfort children in scary medical environments, it's stuffed with sensors inside and out that detect and record the child's handling of this fuzzy friend. It can distinguish among "petting, tickling, scratching, slapping, and, of course, hugging." When stroked, it can return the gesture with a nuzzle. The underlying idea is that the way the bear is treated can give the child's caregivers an anxiety—or serenity—level report. Right now bruin's treatment is gathered by a data logger, as I surmise, but eventually it will be equipped with A/V capabilities for real-time data reporting.

Wouldn't that bear be a fine companion for frail residents of nursing homes or hospital geriatric units? Stroke victims, for instance, have one tough time telling others how they're doing, yet all too often their brains are active and they want to be heard. Come to think of it, those bears could be excellent try-out pets for your kids, to see if they're really ready for a live version. Regular nose-punches would logically say Not Yet.

So much smart help coming our way from the inanimate! I hope that some of it will peel our faces off the screen and lead us out under the stars.