Samsung Family Hub. Image credit: Jenna Bascom

Back in the year 2000, the world’s first Internet-connected refrigerator was introduced. Made by LG, the Digital DIOS came with a webcam, an Ethernet port and perhaps most importantly, an LCD touchscreen.

The fridge was one of the first examples of an appliance with a digital screen created specifically for the consumer kitchen, but with a $20 thousand price tag, consumers stayed away.  Today, nearly two decades after the introduction of the world’s first smart fridge, some of the world’s biggest consumer electronics companies are rushing to put screens back into the kitchen again.

Why now? There are a few reasons, but most come back to one simple truth: today’s kitchen is becoming the home’s central gathering place, where people not only come to make meals but also to hang out with friends, pay bills or do homework. In other words, the kitchen has become the modern home’s ‘everything room’, and unlike the family room where a TV or family computer often resides, there’s no defined product today in the kitchen that’s accepted as the go-to screen for family members to share information, manage home systems, keep tabs on things and communicate with one another.

Not that some companies aren’t trying. Here’s a look at the leading contenders:

Refrigerators

With ample flat surface space and usually centered in the middle of the kitchen, you can see why appliance makers see the fridge as the logical place to put a big digital screen. And unlike past efforts where companies would sometimes slap a screen on a fridge with limited functionality, today’s smart fridges have big, high-definition LED touch screens. The Samsung Family Hub’s screen is 21.5″, while LG’s Smart Instaview refrigerator has a huge 29″ screen.

Pros: The main advantage of having the refrigerator act as a family’s community screen is the simple fact the fridge has long served as the home’s de facto analog bulletin board, where families stick shopping lists, family pictures, and calendars. Given what seems a natural progression for the fridge to become the home’s digital command center, it’s no surprise companies have been pursuing the idea of the smart fridge for two decades.

Cons: The biggest challenge fridges face in becoming the main ‘family screen’ is simple: these are devices that are meant to stay in a house for ten years or more. This long lifespan is much different from traditional computing devices, such as mobile phones or tablets, which typically have much faster replacement cycles.  Consumers plopping down $2,500 for the latest fridge are going to want their new device to last for at least a decade, no matter how smart they are when they purchase them.

Smart Assistants

Though the Amazon Echo is only a couple years old, its success has create a whole new category of devices alternatively called ‘smart speakers’ or ‘virtual assistants’ (for our purposes I’ll call them ‘smart assistants’, since not all are speakers and the hardware part beyond the voice assistant is hardly virtual).

And now, the company’s new Echo Show represents an entirely new and exciting direction, with a 7″ touch screen and a new visual skill API that allows third party developers to create skills that leverage visual information such as live stream video from a networked camera or cooking videos from Twitch.

And let’s not forget HelloEgg, a smart assistant with an embedded visual display designed specifically for the kitchen created by a company called RND64 that is expected to ship this year.

Pros: Unlike a heavy appliance like a fridge, smart assistant products can be purchased and installed anywhere on a countertop.  In a way, they’re like a highly optimized tablet, but instead of being a personal computing device they’re created to act as a shared screen. In many ways, the Echo Show is Amazon’s concept of a kitchen computer.

Cons: The touchscreen enabled smart assistant category is just simply too new to know how well it will do with consumers. While the Amazon Echo and other smart assistant products are no doubt becoming popular, it’s just a little soon to see how popular smart assistants with touchscreen will be.

Kitchen Counters And Flat Surfaces

The concept of using the kitchen counter as a Minority Report like interactive touch screen has been bouncing around in future-forward design studios for much of the past decade and, in the past couple years, big kitchen electronics makers like Whirlpool have even toyed with the idea of the countertop touch screen.

Pros: First and foremost, the idea of your surface as interactive computing screen is just cool. It also offers an extremely flexible and dynamic format to display information and adjust to specific design needs of a kitchen.

Cons: While the idea has been floating around and touted by such big brands like Whirlpool and IKEA, a projected surface touchscreen has yet to roll out in any significant way in a mass market consumer product.

Kitchen-Centric PCs

For a hot moment back in 2008-9, some in the computer industry decided that since people spend lots of time in the kitchen, they should create a line of Kitchen PCs. The idea wasn’t altogether bad since, in some ways, was a predecessor concept to the Echo Show since these products centered around the early touchscreen Windows PCs. But not surprisingly, the late aughts “kitchen PC” movement fizzled out as quickly as it started.

Pros: The idea of a kitchen computer with a touchscreen is not a bad idea, and lots of people actually have their PCs in the kitchen.

Cons: These devices were just Windows PCs with touchscreens that were very much a product of 2009.

The Microwave Oven

The fridge isn’t the only device where a screen could reside. In fact, a decade ago appliance giant Whirlpool toyed around with the concept of putting a TV screen on a microwave oven. While they never rolled the product out to market, others have since toyed around with the idea.

Pros: Some appliances, like the microwave, are nearly as prevalent as refrigerators. Chances are a touchscreen enabled microwave would likely be much less expensive than a smart fridge.

Cons: At this point, I know of no product company that is considering a smart microwave, perhaps because of the complications of sticking a flat screen computing device on the front of a microwave. Not to say someone couldn’t surprise me, but this one seems to be the domain of tinkerers and video-bloggers at this point.

Bottom line, we’re likely to see many more screens in the kitchen in coming years. Unlike the personal computing devices most of us carry in our pockets or backpacks, these “kitchen screen” will be tailored for shared use and act as a modern equivalent of family bulletin board/digital command center for the modern home.

The only open question is exactly which device will it be.

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