Screenshot of GE Appliances’ website

Hey Siri, turn on my robot vacuum cleaner. OK Google, is my laundry dry? Alexa, when will more people start buying smart appliances for their features?

Appliance makers including Louisville-based GE Appliances are offering ever more connected devices that allow consumers to use voice control to change the temperature of the refrigerator or to use their smartphone to check remotely that the oven is turned off.

While manufacturers are doing their best to attract consumers with new high-tech features, an appliance industry analyst told Insider that, at least so far, few consumers are willing to pay extra dollars to talk to their appliances.

“We’re still in the early stages of that market,” said Patrice Samuels, senior analyst with Parks Associates, an Addison, Texas-based market research and consulting company specializing in emerging consumer technology.

GE, which designs and manufactures appliances at Appliance Park in Louisville, has introduced smart appliances with Wi-Fi connectivity to Amazon’s and Google’s digital assistants. Consumers can use voice commands to change the refrigerator temperature, start the water heater for coffee and inquire about the dishwashing cycle.

Bill Gardner

Bill Gardner, manager of Connected Integrations at GEA, said that GE expects demand for smart appliances to increase because consumers have gotten used to and enjoyed other smart devices. As they’ve used their phones to turn on and off lights in their homes from remote locations or to see who’s knocking on their front door as they’re sitting on a beach in Jamaica, consumers are coming to expect more from their refrigerators and ovens.

In part, the smart appliances provide consumers with peace of mind: Rather than racing back to the home to check whether they’ve turned off the stove, consumers want to be able to verify the status of their oven by looking at an app on their phone, Gardner said.

Consumers also want smarter appliances because they provide convenience, he said. Rather than running up and down the basement stairs to check the status of their washer or dryer, consumers want to be able to get a status update on their phones. When kids are pulling at a father’s leg as he’s trying to prepare a meal, he can now easily use voice control to preheat the oven.

However, Samuels told Insider that the speed with which consumers are buying smart appliances remains low, and a majority of people still does not see the value of the new features.

Patrice Samuels

The industry is still grappling with some basic issues, including consumer awareness and ease of use, she said.

Reviews on Amazon of smart interfaces from GEA and rival Samsung are mediocre at best. Reviews range from “can’t even connect” to “so many problems” and “usability 0” — though some consumers appreciate the features and “love tech when it works.”

While some early adopters are willing to pay extra for the new features, Samuels said about two-thirds of respondents in a first-quarter survey said that they didn’t see the need to control such devices remotely. About half said the extra features added too much cost: Rather than checking their smartphone to see if they have milk in the fridge, consumers prefer saving money on that feature and opening the fridge door before they leave to go shopping — or texting their spouses.

Consumers told Parks Associates that the primary reasons for spending more money on appliances are quality and safety. That means, for example, that they may be willing to spend more on an oven if it improves the quality of the food and prevents mishaps such as burning a steak or disasters such as a fire.

GE Appliances, including the flagship Monogram line, work with Google’s digital assistant. | Courtesy of GEA

A lot of smart appliances offer features of convenience, which may attract early adopters who enjoy a devices’ cool quotient, Samuels said, but those features are unlikely to excite the largest share of consumers.

Samuels said that two other barriers keep consumers from adopting smart appliances more quickly:

  • Complexity: For some devices, consumers prefer ease of use. By the time they get a refrigerator plugged in, connected to the Wi-Fi network and synced with the phone, they may think the tech is just too inconvenient. Plus, they worry about repair bills when the tech stops working.
  • Steady replacement cycles: In many households, appliances represent major purchases, and consumers want to hold on to their refrigerator and oven for many years, regardless of the availability of new features. Consumers want their fridge to keep things cool and their oven to make things hot — not to tell them how the Cardinals played.

Gardner said the appliances’ complexity represents a hurdle for engineers, because consumers need to be able to use their voice not just to turn the devices on or off, but also to program modes, temperatures and time. GEA’s interface, called Geneva, already will give tips to consumers, such as suggesting that when they bake a pizza, they should use the broil mode at the end for a minute to brown the cheese.

Despite the challenges, Gardner said that moving from simple smart devices like lights to complex smart devices like appliances is a “natural progression” that consumers will not just want to adopt but increasingly expect.

He said GEA is putting a lot of resources — though he won’t say how many exactly — into smart appliances to broaden their capabilities and to make sure they can interface with as many current and future interfaces as possible.

That’s a key step to increasing mass market appeal, said Samuels, because consumers want to be sure that they can buy an appliance today and update its tech when necessary so that they can still use it with whatever digital assistant dominates a decade from now.

Can you add some chorizo to my pizza, HAL 9000?

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.