London based design and technology development startup, Berg has designed a prototype internet-connected washing machine that can be operated by means of a smartphone application.
Considerably a first, the prototype (Cloudwash), shows how technology can be harnessed to make simple, sensible improvements to unglamorous appliances. It features a streamlined user interface; wash options are reduced to just a few frequently-used presets, with plain language labels like “sports clothes” or “everyday wash.” A second knob lets you schedule loads not by starting time but, ingeniously, ending time. Other features let you order detergent from Amazon with the press of a button. The machine communicates seamlessly with a smartphone app.
The common approach to smart appliances has been to simply add features, the more the better. In its research for Cloudwash, the Berg team encountered some decidedly overblown approaches to the laundry of tomorrow, including a concept for a self-operating machine that uses RFID tags to determine the garments inside it.
Berg’s approach is considerably more nuanced, not to mention a good deal more realistic; one of Cloudwash’s killer features is something utterly simple: The ability to tell the time.
According to Jack Shuzle, a principal at Berg who led the Cloudwash project, a little bit of temporal awareness goes a long way with washing machines. “That’s the defining thing about them: they exist in time very, very conspicuously,” he says. “When is it spinning? When will it finish? When can I put my stuff in?”
By knowing the time, Cloudwash can tell you when a load will be complete, eliminating the guesswork typically involved in transferring things to the dryer. The internal clock also opens the door to time-delayed cycles. If you’re running to the store, say, you could off-set the finish time so your clothes aren’t sitting in a wet heap for an hour while you’re out.
Another example of Cloudwash’s simplicity is its washing presets. By giving people one-touch access to wash programs they use most frequently, the machine significantly reduces the cognitive load of starting a new load. It does away with the need to do the mental computation on “hot,” “warm,” “cold,” or “permanent press” every time you dump clothes in. As Schulze puts it, “It’s the machine learning to speak in the language of people rather than people learning to speak in the language of machines.”
It will take some time before manufacturers come up with appliances as elegant as Cloudwash. Schulze does think, however, that the phone offers a chance to give consumers some connected functionality relatively quickly.
“For me it’s believable that the next generation of washing machines that are connected look more or less like the machines we’ve got at the moment without that many interventions to the UI. Because it’s a little bit scary to manufacturers, frankly,” he says. “The place that manufacturers could become very nimble is actually on the phone itself.”
The designer says it would be trivial for appliance makers to add connectivity to their machines without overhauling the guts entirely. Then, Schulze says, we could see things like multiple mobile interfaces for single products. There could be one UI for a bachelor who did his clothes infrequently but all in one fell swoop, and another for families with stain-prone kids. In essence, the phone offers customized interactions without requiring manufacturers to build multiple versions of the machine itself.
Image and video courtesy by Berg-Cloudwash