Will Turning Your Fridge Into a Tablet Computer Reduce Food Waste?
The Consumer Electronics Show, held annually at the enormous Las Vegas Convention Center, is in many ways a dress rehearsal for a near future that may or may not happen. The year I attended, 2009, was the year of the 3-D television. Every major electronics company had a 3-D TV to demo, each with a slightly different version of glasses, display, and projection to make the small screen pop out into the living room. Nearly seven years later, 3-D TVs have yet to become “a thing.” This go-around, judging by early reports from CES, may be the year electronics companies try to convince us that a smart fridge is the answer to all our domestic ills. The question is whether or not the Internet-connected appliance will go the way of the at-home 3-D TV.
The smart fridge is not a new product category, but Samsung appears to be pushing its “family hub refrigerator” at this year’s CES, which opens on Wednesday. The Verge reported that in the convention halls there are banner ads (as in hanging cloth, not sidebar advertisements on a website) featuring the fridge, which flaunts a 21.5-inch high-def touch screen on one of its doors. Photos of it were picked up by tech blogs and Twitter on Sunday—and the response was, well, not enthusiastic.
But many of the whiz-bang features promised—internal cameras to monitor food spoilage, bar-code scanners to synchronize stock and sell-by dates with a shopping app on your phone—could help to address the very real, very big problem of food waste. American consumers throw away 40 percent of what they purchase every year, and a whopping $161 billion worth of food is wasted across the supply chain annually.
A perhaps more realistic version of the future has the smart fridge managing and keeping track of our food by scanning the bar codes of items (or a receipt) as we put them into the fridge. Or maybe voice-recognition technology will enable the tracking of items by hearing us describe them. All we have to say is “three tomatoes,” “a dozen eggs,” or “cooked pasta” when placing items into the fridge, which will then record the current date and add an expiration date, so we never eat stale or spoiled food. Perhaps being able to text your fridge from the grocery store could help?
Some people think so. “What if your fridge could monitor its own contents and ping you while you’re at the store to remind you that you still have yogurt and don’t need to buy more?” Peter Lehner, the former executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote for the NRDC blog. “What if it had five different temperature settings, instead of two, and could adjust itself to keep your food fresher longer? What if it could let you know that your green beans were at peak freshness and suggest a recipe for you to cook them? That’s where this technology is going.”
But there may be real limits to both the technology and the way that people are willing to relate to it, according to some user-experience designers.
“Convenience is a strong differentiator, and consumers will tend to adopt technology that is most convenient to their way of life,” Avi Itzkovitch wrote for UX Magazine in a 2013 story called “The Internet of Things and the Mythical Smart Fridge.” “If smart fridge users have to scan items manually or interact with a screen while placing food items into the fridge, the smart fridge will become a novelty and the added ‘smart’ functionality will scarcely be used.” Also, cost could be a huge deterrent. The Samsung model seen at CES will likely retail for around $4,000, The Verge estimated—more than double what the average refrigerator costs.
The reliance on bar codes could present a problem because throwing out food based on the sell-by date is a sure-fire way to waste perfectly good items. As Dana Gunders, NRDC’s food-waste expert, told TakePart in 2013, “The expiration date is not an indicator of when you can eat your food; it’s an indicator of when the brand is willing to stand behind that food” and does not pinpoint when the food will spoil. The sell-by date is included on food items “so that you can have the peak consumer experience with it,” she continued. “No one is pretending that you can’t eat that product after the date—that it’s bad, that it’s going to make you sick.”
As of yet, there isn’t a smart fridge out there that helps convince people to eat foods they might otherwise be inclined to throw away.