At last, smart technology lets you live like the Jetsons
When Susan Greene is wondering what to make for dinner, she doesn't have to wonder for long—her refrigerator has more than a few suggestions.
"I can go in and say, 'I have chicken. Give me the recipes that I can use to make a dish,' " said Greene, a project manager in Bowie, Md. "It has all the ingredients there."
If she wants to check the weather or listen to Pandora, the fridge can do that too. And, if she's out of milk, the appliance reminds her to pick it up at the supermarket—via her iPhone, of course.
"It's a techie kind of fridge" explained Greene, "with the Internet, being able to keep track of your groceries, what's in there and what's expiring. I was really intrigued by the whole thing."
After careful research, she and her husband purchased one of LG's latest smart refrigerators, complete with a built-in touchscreen. It's a futuristic fridge that might seem straight out of "The Jetsons," but, as technology advances, appliances like these are going mainstream.
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"The Smart ThinQ fridge makes the connected home a reality," said Dave VanderWaal, director of brand marketing for home appliances at LG Electronics. "So many of us are working couples ... both trying to be at the grocery store and keep track of what's happening at home. Just being able to go back and forth with the phone and the grocery list with exactly what you need is a huge benefit."
But refrigerators aren't the only appliances getting an IQ bump. Smart TVs play YouTube videos and display photos on a big screen. Smart washers and dryers send messages to your phone, letting you know when the laundry's done. Clogged lint trap or power failure? The machines will alert both you and a repair technician.
"If there is an issue," VanderWaal said, "it'll actually diagnose itself and tell the service person, these are the parts I'm going to need with me when I do the repair call."
Humanizing the world
We're at a tipping point with smart technology, according to Alex Hawkinson, founder and CEO of SmartThings, which aims to make your whole house smart.
"When you're home, you don't have to lift a finger," he said. "The lights will just come on and off and the climate will manage itself. It'll know when you're home or not, and act as a security system, and call your neighbor if it needs to."
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By placing a variety of sensors around your house and using your smartphone as a remote control, you can manage and monitor anything with SmartThings—adjust the temperature, turn off lights, turn on the alarm and lock your doors. The sensors can also be programmed to send you alerts, such as when moisture is detected in the basement, mail arrives in your mailbox, or the dog wanders off.
"It's humanizing the world in a way," Hawkinson said. "People do playful apps. Like, the parents are home, it's Friday night at 10 p.m., the kids are in bed, and you want the romance lighting and Barry White to come on. You can put personality and intelligence into the everyday."
Tom Coates knows something about smart houses—he's living in one. The blogger and Web entrepreneur has sensors throughout his San Francisco home, monitoring motion, temperature and even water for his plants. The house is so high-tech that it has its own Twitter handle (
@houseofcoates), but he's not sold on all smart gadgets.
"If you embed it in the device, then you can't upgrade it easily," he said. "You can't change it. Remember, fridges have a life cycle of 15 years."
Which might explain why, rather than owning a smart model, Coates has an iPad stuck to his refrigerator with magnets.
"What we're seeing is a negotiation between trying to communicate to the public about what it would mean to have more devices and appliances in their home that are connected to the Internet, and how to sell it to people," he said. "And I think the way that you sell it is different from how useful it is."
(Read more: The cloud: What happens to the data?)
The cost of the future
Living in the future comes at a price. SmartThings' "Know and Control Your Home" starter kit will run you $299. Coates says he rigged his house with sensors for less than $500. And at $3,500, the Greenes' fridge is more than double the price of a standard refrigerator.
But smart technology can be a money saver, whether it's your fridge reminding you to use the pork chops or your smartphone automatically turning your lights off when you're out.
"It can touch every part of your life—security, safety, lighting and climate," said Hawkinson. "So it can save a lot of money. There's 20 to 30 percent of energy reduction just by your environment knowing if you're there or not."
For Greene, the costs are worth it.
"If you've forgotten to lock the door, you left the air conditioning on and you're going away for a week, you can turn it off with your iPhone—it just saves so much time and money," she said. "It adds to the quality of your life, especially with smart fridge and being able to get new recipes.
"Plus," she laughed, "it's just very cool."
—By CNBC's Meghan Lisson.
From refrigerators to freight trains, CNBC's "Rise of the Machines" shows you how a new generation of connected machines can now speak to us, and each other. "Rise of the Machines" premieres Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.