It's been a century since the U.S. home got its first taste of labor-saving high technology in the form of the dishwasher. In the years since, we've gotten Cuisinarts, garbage disposals and microwave ovens. Now, the experts say, we're on the verge of having microprocessors manage our everyday household operations.
Microwaves already can cook a meat loaf or spaghetti sauce to preprogrammed delight; refrigerators talk if a door is left ajar, and dishwashers automatically diagnose their operating problems and tell the repair technician.
Are you ready for more?
The folks whose job it is to dream of the future are.
How about microwaves that can scan a bar code in a special cook book and automatically cook your food according to the recipe? It's currently available only in Japan from Sharp Corp. for the equivalent of about $1,000.
The company says that, despite the price, it's selling well and could be introduced in the United States.
Or what about a master digital clock that could reset all the rest of a home's digital clocks when the power fails or daylight-saving time ends? Appliance makers are said to be working on such a model now.
Maybe a freezer-to-microwave system that drops a frozen meal into the oven and cooks it according to programmed directions?
Such devices are not beyond the realm of possibility, but they are only a part of what electronic home management is all about.
"Electronic gadgets don't constitute the essence of home automation," according to Christopher Jackson of the Yankee Group, a Boston high-tech market analysis company.
"The ultimate goal is to have a house that is able to take care of itself by diagnosing its problems and managing its operations," said Trisha Parks of Parks & Associates, a Dallas consulting group.
It's not all that far-fetched, Parks said. "You wouldn't buy a car that couldn't tell you when it's getting low on gas or oil. So why should you be happy with an air conditioner that runs out of Freon and burns up? It's the same thing."
Home appliance makers and home builders are developing total home systems that would regulate and integrate just about every major household operation, from utility, security and telephone systems to individual appliances.
The National Association of Home Builders has established a special "smart" house unit to develop a prototype electronic house by mid-1990.
A key ingredient of the project is a "fail-safe" electrical system that could guard against accidental electrocutions.
A chip in each smart-house device and appliance will identify what is being plugged into an outlet, as well as its need for electrical current.
An unauthorized device, such as a baby's finger or screwdriver, would not receive current because it would not carry the necessary identification.
Other research is being done into utility management systems that would "shop" for off-peak electrical rates and then turn on appliances when the rates drop.
"The possible combinations are almost endless," Parks said. "But it's the same market challenge as the personal computer faced.
"You have to answer the question of what you want the electronics to do for you and what benefit you think you will get," she said.