NEW YORK -- Internet-connected "smarts" are creeping into cars, refrigerators, thermostats, toys and just about everything else.
The Consumer Electronics Show 2019, the gadget expo show opening today in Las Vegas, will showcase many of these products, including an oven that coordinates recipes and a toilet that flushes with a voice command.
With every additional smart device in the home, companies are able to gather more details about users' daily lives. Some of that can be used to help advertisers target potential buyers.
"It's decentralized surveillance," said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based digital privacy advocate. "We're living in a world where we're tethered to some online service stealthily gathering our information."
Yet consumers so far seem to be welcoming these devices. The research firm International Data Corp. projects that 1.3 billion smart devices will ship worldwide in 2022, twice as many as 2018.
Companies say they are building these products not for snooping but for convenience, although Amazon, Google and other partners enabling the intelligence can use the details they collect to customize their services and ads.
Whirlpool, for instance, is testing an oven whose window doubles as a display. Users will still be able to see what's roasting inside, but the glass can now display animation pointing to where to place the turkey for optimal cooking.
The oven can sync with a digital calendar and recommend recipes based on how much time a person has. It can help coordinate multiple recipes, so that people aren't undercooking the side dishes in focusing too much on the entree. A camera inside lets users zoom in to see if the cheese on the lasagna has browned enough.
Then there's the smart toilet. Kohler's Numi will respond to voice commands to raise or lower the lid -- or to flush. Users can do it from an app, too. The company says it's all about offering hands-free options in a setting that's very personal. The toilet is also heated and can play music and the news through its speakers.
Kohler also has a tub that adjusts water temperature and a kitchen faucet that dispenses just the right amount of water for a recipe.
For the most part, consumers aren't asking for these specific features.
"We try to be innovative in ways that customers don't realize they need," Samsung spokesman Louis Masses said.
Whirlpool said insights can come from something as simple as watching consumers open the oven door several times to check on the meal, losing heat in the process.
"They do not say to us, 'Please tell me where to put [food] on the rack, or do algorithm-based cooking,'" said Doug Searles, general manager for Whirlpool's research arm, WLabs. "They tell us the results that are most important to them."
Samsung has several voice-enabled products, including a refrigerator that comes with an app that lets owners check on its contents while they're grocery shopping. New this year: Samsung's washing machines can send alerts to its TVs -- smart TVs, of course -- so viewers watching Netflix will know their laundry is ready.
Other connected items at CES include:
• A fishing rod that tracks its location to build an online map of where its user has made the most catches.
• A toothbrush that recommends where to brush more.
• A fragrance diffuser that can control the smell of a home from a smartphone app.
These are poised to join Internet-connected security cameras, door locks and thermostats that are already on the market. The latter can work with sensors to turn the heat down automatically when their owners leave home.
Chester said consumers feel the need to keep up with their neighbors when they buy appliances with the smartest smarts. He said all the conveniences can be "a powerful drug to help people forget the fact that they are also being spied on."
Gadgets with voice controls typically aren't transmitting any data back to company servers until they are activated with a trigger word, such as "Alexa" or "OK Google." But devices have sometimes misheard innocuous words as legitimate commands to record and send private conversations.
Even when devices work properly, commands are usually stored indefinitely. Companies can use the data to personalize experiences -- including ads. Beyond that, background conversations may be stored with the voice recordings and can resurface with hacking or as part of lawsuits or investigations.
A device knowing what people cook or stock in their refrigerator might seem innocuous. But if insurers get hold of the data, they might charge customers more depending on their diets, warned Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. He also said it might be possible to infer ethnicity based on foods consumed.
Manufacturers are instead emphasizing the benefits: Data collection from the smart faucet, for instance, allows Kohler's app to display how much water is dispensed. (Water bills typically show water use for the whole home, not individual taps.)
The market for smart devices is still small, but growing. Kohler estimates that in a few years, smart appliances will make up 10 percent of its revenue. Though the features are initially limited to premium models -- such as the $7,000 toilet -- they should eventually appear in entry-level products, too, as costs come down.
Consider the TV. "Dumb" TVs are rare these days, as the vast majority of TVs ship with Internet connections and apps.
"It becomes a check-box item for the TV manufacturer," said Paul Gagnon, an analyst with IHS Markit.
Information for this article was contributed by Joseph Pisani, Matt O'Brien and Frank Bajak of The Associated Press.
Business on 01/08/2019
Print Headline: Home appliances getting smarter