What's cooking? Bluetooth hits the kitchen

Toshiba Corp. started rolling out a line of Bluetooth-enabled networked home appliances last week, observing consumers' reactions to the new and as-yet unproven products, while audio-equipment maker Kenwood Corp. announced with more confidence the development of Bluetooth wireless headphones.

They were both demonstrated at Bluetooth Expo 2002, which ran last week in Chiba, Japan.

Japanese hardware makers are expecting networked home appliances to be hot items within a few years; however, market research has not really shown precisely what kind of products will be hits with consumers.

Toshiba, one of the leading backers of both Bluetooth and the networked home appliance idea, has combined the two technologies and unveiled a line of networked home appliances, including a washing machine, refrigerator and microwave oven, along with a home terminal and access point that all connect using Bluetooth wireless technology.

Toshiba is releasing the products not with the full confidence that they will spread networked home appliance adoption, but partly to test the waters for such devices.

"No matter how many times we do market research on (home networking) products, we get similar responses, like 'if such products are available, we are curious to try them,' from consumers," said Morio Hirahara, a specialist at the digital and network applications development group of Toshiba. "So, 10 percent of the reason for releasing these products now is to see the reactions from the market."

Using the home terminal, which looks something like a tablet PC and has a 10.4-inch color TFT (thin film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display) touch-panel screen, the three appliances can be controlled via the Bluetooth link.

The terminal also allows for Internet access within a 100-meter distance from the compact-size access-point device which connects to an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) or cable modem. From Toshiba's site, it is possible to download services for the home appliances. For example, a customized laundry program can be updated to the washing machine or a cooking recipe can be installed in the microwave.

Some visitors to the Toshiba booth were skeptical of the usefulness of the system. "I can see that the Internet accessibility of the terminal is convenient, but what is the point of the Bluetooth connection?" one person asked. "For instance, you need to walk up to the microwave and put food in it when cooking anyway," he added, wondering why you couldn't just use the buttons on the microwave at that point.

"The main benefit at the moment is when these home appliances break down, " Hirahara explained. "They can send out information about what is wrong with them, so that our customer service can respond to it sooner with more accuracy than receiving a phone call (from the owner)."

The real potential for Bluetooth-networked appliances may be in home security related products, Hirahara said. Consumers are more interested in these areas, such as an entrance door that has a sensor that can wirelessly send out a warning and monitoring function, he said.

The ability to operate products though handier terminals, such as Bluetooth-equipped cell phones, will also become key in the future, said Hirahara. "From next year onwards, you can expect more products that can be operated by a cell phone."

Toshiba's products, which were demonstrated at the exhibition, cost around ¥700,000 ($9,930) as a set. The company eventually hopes to reduce the price of each to as low as conventional home appliances, in order to attract consumers, he said.

Tokyo audio-electronics maker Kenwood, on the other hand, is confident that Bluetooth-embedded headphones will be one of the killer applications for the spread of Bluetooth, according to a Kenwood statement.

A prototype of such a product was on show at Bluetooth Expo and still needs further development. However, the company hopes to commercialize it by the end of this year at a price under ¥10,000 ($141), said Ryousuke Tsutsumi, an engineer at the Technical Strategy Division of Kenwood.

"Because Bluetooth transmits only (digital) data, unlike (the analog signals carried along wires to conventional) headphones, this headphone itself needs to work like an audio player, converting that data into music and replaying it," Tsutsumi said.

The highest hurdle at the moment is its battery life, Tsutsumi said, and the company is trying to make the device run at least for five hours. It also needs to be compatible not only with Bluetooth's standard sub-band audio codec but other audio codec formats, especially MP3 and Sony Corp.'s ATRAC, as audio data on other devices, such as MiniDisc players, are usually compressed in that format, he said.

Kenwood is jointly developing this device with one other Japanese company, which they would not name, and has just started developing Bluetooth-enabled audio players, such as a compact CD player and a MD player, Tsutsumi said.

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