The Past and Future of Smart Appliances

How we got today's smart appliances, and how we're building better ones for tomorrow.
Lyn Stoler

If you walk into an appliance showroom today, you’re almost guaranteed to come across a smart appliance. Each brand will try to sell you on how their new smart features and bespoke apps will change your life. 

But the world of smart features is messy. WiFi, AI, custom settings, and apps can feel both exciting and overwhelming when you're trying to cook dinner, or get your laundry done. 

As we build out the first Impulse cooktop, we're designing smart features that enhance your cooking experience, rather than distract from it. In the process, we've done a deep dive into the past and future of smart features, and uncovered a lot of questions in the process. How did we get here? What is a smart feature, really? And how do we trim unnecessary features to design a more delightful and useful appliance? 

In today's post, we're sharing what we've learned, so you know exactly how we're building the next generation of home appliances. We'll cover… 

  • The history of smart appliances
  • What a smart appliance actually is 
  • How to build better smart appliances

The history of smart appliances

At their advent, home appliances were inherently smart. With their widespread American adoption in the 1950’s, appliances offered the same promise for housework that AI offers today for cognitive work: automate repetitive, manual tasks to free up our time and energy for better things.

Vintage ads courtesy of Taste of Home.

Despite some trial and error, large appliances overwhelmingly delivered on that promise. Laundry machines washed clothes, and fridges kept food cold. They did this all on their own, with only the push of a button or the turn of a knob to guide them. They were smart.

Vintage ads courtesy of Taste of Home.

But over the next few decades, the definition of smart changed.

Laundry machines began offering new cycle types. Ovens could pre-heat to your desired temperature, and even turned on a light to let you know they were ready to go. You could even buy a fridge that taught you a new language while you cooked dinner.

Frigidaire ad, courtesy of Taste of Home.

These changes were supercharged with the idea of connected appliances that redefined the idea of “smart”. 

In 1978, the X10 protocol, which used AC wiring to connect appliances to one another, hit the market with the promise of a smart whole-home control system. Throughout the 1980s, programmable home security systems and motion sensor lights ushered in the coining of the term “smart house”.

And in 1990, we got the first truly prescient glimpse into the future of what a smart appliance could be: the internet connected toaster.

The debut of the internet connected toaster, courtesy of Living Internet.

What is a smart appliance?

The internet-toaster didn’t actually do much, beyond making toast. But since its debut, the idea of a smart appliance has revolved around the idea of a connected appliance.

Over the next couple decades, excitement around connected appliances was fueled by innovations in IoT (Internet of Things) protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave. But eventually, WiFi and Bluetooth won out. Regardless of the protocol powering these appliances, "connected" became nearly synonymous with "smart". 

Connected appliances and apps

With the ubiquity of WiFi and Bluetooth, appliances that connect to each other and/or the internet have dominated the market. In fact, 38% of appliance models offered at retailers have the ability to connect to the internet.

Most of these appliances make use of their internet connection through apps. Different manufacturers offer different levels of sophistication — from basic burner monitoring, to remotely controlling your cooking zones, to custom cooking programs that follow recipes.

Whether your appliance offers the most basic smart features or super sophisticated ones, WiFi connection often means that you can control these features remotely from your phone or systems like Amazon's Alexa.

These apps can go beyond communicating with you when you’re cooking. They can also play an important role in appliance upgrading, maintenance, and repair by:

  • Notifying you when you need to replace a part (like a water filter on a fridge)
  • Identifying and communicating malfunctions in the appliance
  • Diagnosing necessary repairs
  • Remotely updating your appliance’s software, so you can add the latest settings and modes

Beyond connecting to our phones, some appliances use their smart features to communicate with each other. For example, brands like Gaggenau, Dacor, and Miele offer ranges and cooktops that use Bluetooth or WiFi to connect to a hood or vent — so that when you start cooking, your air is automatically vented for you.

Smart, but not connected

When you go beyond the connection-centric definition of a smart appliance, though, you uncover other truly intelligent features that can improve performance, safety, and efficiency for household appliances. 

It can be hard to differentiate some of these features from WiFi-powered ones. So here's a quick breakdown, using a laundry machine as an example: 

  • Static features: Your washing machine has new pre-set modes, like a "Sanitize" cycle 
  • Flexible features: Your washing machine allows you to create a custom cycle
  • Smart / AI features: Your washing machine senses your load size, and automatically adjusts the wash cycle 

Before the interest in internet-connected appliances, appliances got "smarter" by introducing new static and flexible features. Think of refrigerators that had different temperature or humidity zones, or ovens that added convection roast modes. 

New static and flexible features that improved performance, safety, and reliability stood the test of time (while the radio-fridge and internet-toaster didn’t). Over time, those smart features became the new standard and pushed the industry forward.

Today, AI features have opened up a world of opportunity for unexplored safety, performance, and efficiency improvements. Though the space is still rapidly evolving, it looks like these features will be especially well-suited to save users time and energy. 

In today's induction cooktops, we're seeing the effect of all that progress. Safety and performance smart features are standard in appliances from almost every brand: 

  • Power management functions improve efficiency and performance by increasing the heating power of a cooking zone
  • Childproof locks
  • Automatic spill and timer shut-offs
  • Flexible induction powered by cookware sensing (so your cooktop can sense where your pots and pans are, and power that section of the stove) 

Despite the focus on smart appliance connectivity, all of these features seamlessly solve real safety problems that are important to everyday cooks — no WiFi or app required. They not only make cooktops more effective and delightful to use, but also address fundamental safety issues that plague less tech-enabled stoves.

How to make smart appliances that people want 

Smart features have an obvious opportunity to significantly improve our experience with appliances. In fact, most consumers who try a smart appliance generally want to keep using smart appliances. 

The bad news is that smart appliances often miss the mark. Skepticism tends to be fueled by negative experiences or centered around a few core issues:

The good news is that for decades, increasingly intelligent and intuitive appliances solved real problems that users dealt with every day. And with careful design and the help of our users, we can fix these issues with smart appliances too. 

At Impulse, we’re aiming to design smart features that stand the test of time and set new standards. 

To do that, we're starting with industry-leading protocols for security and interoperability. We'll also be taking inspiration from beloved features that most folks find important and easy-to-use, such as timers, monitoring functions, and setting controls. 

Most importantly, we’re developing our smart features with you (yes, literally you) included in every step of the design and development process.

Here’s what we're specifically doing — plus, how you can get involved:

  • Prioritizing the reliability and lifespan of our hardware and software. (And we’re hiring the engineers that will help make that a reality.)
  • Working with real appliance owners and users to design seamless smart features designed for the way you already cook — and the way you aspire to cook. (If you want to be a part of that journey, apply to our Impulse Insiders program.)
  • Testing smart features that make energy efficiency and resilience a no-brainer. (Tell us how you’d like us to solve those problems here.)

At Impulse, we won’t try to convince you that smart appliances are going to change your life. Instead, we’re asking you to show us how you’d like to level up your cooking experience, and building the next generation of products that will make it possible.

We’re excited to share all of the specifics with you soon (and have some exciting announcements headed your way)! To keep up with the latest and get involved, join us here

The Past and Future of Smart Appliances