When Jay Heimburger told his wife Diane that he’d bought a robotic lawn mower, she had just three words for him: Take it back. Surely this was just another high-priced toy of his, destined for the back of the garage after a few weeks of entertainment.

 

Four years later, however, it has practically become a member of the family. The Heimburgers now keep two of them, affectionately named Mo and Motilda, at their neighborhood home. And Diane runs them at least as much as Jay.

 

“It’s great, especially in the heat of the summer,” she says. “You can turn it on and forget about it, and go do other things you need to do.”

 

The mowers, which Jay says retail for around $700 apiece, work something like a pool sweep. They run in a largely random pattern until most, if not all, of the yard is covered.

 

          Friendly Robotics, the mower’s manufacturer, has plans to introduce a robotic surface cleaner soon, along with an in-house security and surveillance robot. And that’s not the only company making leaps and bounds in home maintenance technology. iRobot markets a robotic vacuum cleaner, called the Roomba, for $200, and competitors Hoover and Eureka reportedly will debut their own versions soon, said to be much more powerful with a much larger price tag of more than $1,000.

 

          What’s with all these new high-tech appliances? Are we finally coming to a an age — so long predicted — when machines will do all of our household chores with little or no effort on our part?

 

          Larry Campbell, manager of Jarrell Company Appliances in Dallas , says it’s all just the next step in what appliance companies have always done: search for what consumers are willing and able to buy to make their lives easier, better and/or just more fun.

 

“Appliance companies have always tried new things,” he says.

 

The success of those new things, he adds, often depends on where the product is sold.

 

“Take, for example, the refrigerator with built-in Internet access. It’s been a hit in and , where space is limited. But here in the States, where consumers usually have room in their homes for a desktop computer, it flopped.”

 

Same thing for the combination washer and dryer. Sounds like a cool idea no more listening for the beep to move clothes out of one machine and into another. But Campbell says it’s not the best option for most Americans.

 

“Single-machine washers and dryers have been around since the ’50s,” he says. “They’re useful where space is critical. But if you have the space, they’re just not the best avenue.”

 

So what does Campbell expect to be embraced here in ?

 

“First are speed-cooking ovens, which can cook food up to four times faster. Speed cooking is here to stay,” he says. “I think it will expand, but it may just take a while. People are slow to accept change in appliances.”

 

He also has high hopes for a built-in coffee center by Miele, which grounds beans and adds just the right amount of water to make coffee, lattes and cappuccinos with the touch of a button.

 

“It sells for around $2,000. It’s pricey, so it’s not for everybody,” he says.

 

          But the world of high-end, high-tech appliances — where design seems to be at least as important as performance — isn’t being fed only by functionality. Ovens, stoves, refrigerators and dishwashers, once used strictly to put food on the table, have become today’s status symbols. Consumers are often spending thousands of dollars, whether they know their way around the kitchen or not.

 

“I’ll put it this way,” Campbell says. “We don’t make anybody sign an affidavit that they’re actually going to use these things. Some of the most expensive kitchens in town are the least used.”

 

“Still,” he adds, “most of those high-end appliances do perform very well. They need to look good, but you don’t have the status if it doesn’t perform.”

 

          The moral of the story? Bells, whistles and cool looks aside, performance is still paramount with household appliances. Bottom line, appliances are just labor savors, Campbell says. When new technology actually gives consumers an advantage, they really embrace it.

 

It’s true for the Heimburgers, who most love their mowers when they’re nowhere near them.

 

“The best part is using it at our lake house,” Jay says. “I hit a button, then get in the boat and go fishing.”

 


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