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Minneapolis area company explains automation trends

A kitchen that takes inventory of your refrigerator's contents and compiles a grocery list may seem like a far-off concept from an episode of "The Jetsons." Not for Angie's List members Patti and Brian Burke-Conte of Seattle.

"I've always been interested in the ways technology can change people's lives," says Brian, who has worked in the technology industry for years, and even managed the development of Microsoft's first browser in 1985. "When we built our home in 2003, it gave me an opportunity to try some of my ideas."

The family's home has a personality of its own - literally. She goes by the name of Cleopatra and is the intelligence behind running the home. Her face, which is similar to Angelina Jolie's, appears on a plasma screen mounted in the foyer where she greets her family of five as they enter.

"Instead of having physical keys, we have RFID tags on the backs of our watches," Brian says. "It's extremely helpful when you're carrying bags of groceries, and we don't have to worry about lost keys - we just disable the lost tag."

The kitchen is as equally high-tech as the rest of the house. Once the Burke-Contes have brought the groceries into the kitchen, they scan each item's UPC barcode with a standard reader like you see at your local grocer. When a food item is gone, they scan the container before throwing it away. The software compiles a shopping list for them and the couple is developing a system allowing them to place an order online and have groceries delivered to their front door. If that's not convenient enough, the new system will also provide meal suggestions and recipes using the food items in their pantry.

Jeremy Wolfson, owner of highly-rated Connect Home Theater & Automation in Plymouth, says he’s seen grocery management technologies like the Burke-Contes, but feels his clients would think it’s a bit over the top. “The popular kitchen applications I’ve seen are swiveling touch screens mounted under the cabinets,” Wolfson says. The system can control music throughout your house and look up recipes online while you’re cooking. Internet-capable appliances are starting to surface as well. “Fridges connected to the Internet self-diagnose and send an e-mail to the service company to let them know there’s a problem,” Wolfson says.

Now, the only thing high-tech home automation systems in the kitchen are missing is a robot that will cook your meal and clean up afterward. “I think the kitchen of the future will have all the appliances networked into the home’s automation system,” Wolfson says. “The touchscreens will alert you when the oven is preheated, when the dishes are clean and if the fridge door is open. I suppose that someday we may each have a robot named Rosie like on ‘The Jetsons,’ but I don’t speculate that far ahead.”

The Burke-Contes' company, Fast Track, turned their technology into a suite of home-automation products available for purchase called SmarterHome, with software ranging from about $1,000 to $5,000. For more information, check out fasttrackteam.com.


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