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Rise of the ‘smart’ machines

Imagine switching off a TV and AC with the same remote or even with a mobile phone from a different location that can be as far away as another country.

business Updated: May 01, 2011 21:07 IST
Rachit Vats

Imagine switching off a TV and AC with the same remote or even with a mobile phone from a different location that can be as far away as another country.

Or imagine a TV that also connects to the internet, blurring out the dividing line between entertainment and information. Or a car that auto-corrects its path. Or a DTH set-top box that is not only HD-enabled but also 3D ready. Or a microwave oven that can also recite recipes for you.

Actually, you don’t need to imagine them; they already exist. You would have seen most of their advertising on TV already. Samsung is tom-tomming its internet TV, Onida has showcased its mobile phone-as-remote for TV already, Volkswagen boasts of auto-correct in its advertising and Airtel Digital has gone a step beyond its DTH competitors to announce its 3D-ready set-top box.

Korean majors Samsung and LG Electronics and the Japanese, including Sony and the resurgent Panasonic, are in a race with others such as the homegrown Onida, Godrej and the relatively newer Vu Technologies — Zenith Infotech’s sister concern — to ride the opportunity in the fast growing ‘smart’ consumer home electronic goods market.

“Consumer electronics majors are looking at creating the market for such appliances. Unlike the US, the ‘smart’ home equipment industry is not very big in India, though it’s growing fast. In a year’s time, one can expect smart home appliances to contribute 5-10% of overall sales for different consumer electronics companies,” said Gaurav Gupta, director, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India.

Experts suggest that connected home appliances, high on artificial intelligence and able to talk to each other, giving consumers more power, is the future.

“Any appliance which is not ‘smart’ will soon be on the wrong side of the tipping point,” said Rajeev Jain, business head (home appliances), LG Electronics India. Currently, for LG, other than smart TVs, other smart home appliances’ contribution to its overall revenue may not be big but they’re certainly a new area of focus the company wants to train its eyes on.

“This is a ‘just-born’ category and smart TVs are giving us a good opportunity to test the water,” said Rohit Pandit, business head (home entertainment), LG Electronics India. The smart TV market is estimated to be around seven lakh units. LG aims to sell 2 lakh smart TVs this year.

“The idiot box has suddenly transformed into an intelligent device,” said Devita Saraf, CEO, Vu Technologies. The company claims to have sold 1,000 units of its intelligent TVs after its launch in end-2010.

Samsung India aims to sell one lakh smart televisions by the year’s end. “Consumers are looking at smarter, more converged and intuitive experiences from their devices. Smart solutions for home appliances is the way forward,” said Ravinder Zutshi, deputy MD, Samsung India. “In the top seven cities, smart TVs are already contributing 15% of sales for us,” said Zutshi.

While the major players have engaged in a neck-to-neck race for smart TVs, homegrown Onida is following a similar strategy with a tweak. “We are not pursuing convergence just for its own sake. We define ‘smart’ from a more consumer-centric way. The consumer connect team spends, on an average, 230 days with target consumers and passes on the information to the cross-functional teams. The R&D team then works on adding those ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ features to appliances. We are working on the internet part too,” said Sriram Krishnamurthy, VP – sales, marketing and service, Onida (MIRC Electronics).

Onida’s washing machines come equipped with brushes, and its microwaves recite pre-loaded recipes. Smart washing machines are contributing 20% to Onida’s volumes.

Godrej’s appliance division is currently test-marketing an LCD TV-cum-game console and, encouraged by its success, is looking at more innovations. “Smart appliances are seeing growth as consumers seek more convenience and want more control over their appliances. Our experiments with the TV-console has been successful and we are now launching it in more markets,” said Kamal Nandi, VP – sales & marketing, appliance division, Godrej & Boyce.

The TV-console was till now available in select markets in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, West Bengal and Maharashtra. It is now being taken to four more states.

For Panasonic, its EcvoNavi AC works on two factors: low activity detection and absence detection. In ACs with EcoNavi technology, the increase in price would be around Rs 2,000, which the customer can save in one year of operation.

“Our products also focus on saving energy. This smartness will be embedded in its other product range as well,” said Manish Sharma, director marketing, Panasonic India.

Consumers are responding positively too, willing to stretch their budgets for what they understand to be future-ready products. “There is certainly a need for smart home appliances out there and, at the moment, the consumer electronics companies in India are looking at creating that market. Gradually innovations are being brought in, at a premium. Once mass adoption begins, these products will be democratised,” said Sharma.