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Publication numberUS20060096303 A1
Publication typeApplication
Application numberUS 10/986,397
Publication date11 May 2006
Filing date10 Nov 2004
Priority date10 Nov 2004
Publication number10986397, 986397, US 2006/0096303 A1, US 2006/096303 A1, US 20060096303 A1, US 20060096303A1, US 2006096303 A1, US 2006096303A1, US-A1-20060096303, US-A1-2006096303, US2006/0096303A1, US2006/096303A1, US20060096303 A1, US20060096303A1, US2006096303 A1, US2006096303A1
InventorsGregory Kavounas
Original AssigneeKavounas Gregory T
Export CitationBiBTeX, EndNote, RefMan
External Links: USPTO, USPTO Assignment, Espacenet
Home refrigerator systems imaging their interior and methods
US 20060096303 A1
Abstract
A home refrigerator system (200) includes an enclosure (202) that defines an interior (203) for storing food (223, 224), a machine (209) for cooling the interior (203), a door (205) usable for accessing the interior (203), and a camera (252) for imaging the interior (203) while the door (205) is shut. The camera generates a signal (284) encoding the image of the interior. The signal (284) can be viewed on a screen (286) outside the interior, to assist in decision-making without opening the door (205).
Images(11)
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Claims(71)
1. A home refrigerator system comprising:
an enclosure defining an interior for storing food;
at least one door that can be opened for accessing the interior, and shut for sealing the interior substantially airtightly;
a machine for cooling air in the interior; and
a first camera coupled with the enclosure for generating an image of at least a portion of the interior when the door is shut.
2. The system of claim 1, in which
a component of the camera is fixedly attached to the enclosure.
3. The system of claim 1, wherein
a component of the camera is mounted on the door.
4. The system of claim 1, wherein
the camera is disposed wholly in the interior, and
further comprising at least a portion of a conductor for transferring the image from the interior to a screen outside the interior.
5. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
an imaging switch for activating the camera to generate the image when the door is shut.
6. The system of claim 5, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by a pushbutton.
7. The system of claim 5, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by an electrical signal.
8. The system of claim 5, in which
when the imaging switch is actuated, it activates the camera, and
when the actuation is discontinued, activating is continued for a period of time.
9. The system of claim 5, further comprising:
a memory for storing the image.
10. The system of claim 9, wherein
a SAME flag is set upon storing the image, and
the SAME flag is unset if the door is subsequently opened.
11. The system of claim 10, wherein
no new image is generated if the switch is actuated and the SAME flag is set.
12. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
a home network connection for guiding the image to a screen.
13. The system of claim 12, wherein
the connection includes a wireless segment.
14. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
a mirror to assist in the imaging.
15. The system of claim 14, wherein
the mirror has alternating areas of a first reflection characteristic and of a second reflection characteristic.
16. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
a light source for illuminating the interior while the camera images the interior.
17. The system of claim 16, in which
a component of the camera is fixedly attached to the enclosure.
18. The system of claim 16, wherein
a component of the camera is mounted on the door.
19. The system of claim 16, further comprising:
an imaging switch for activating, when the door is shut, at least one of the light source and the camera.
20. The system of claim 19, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by a pushbutton.
21. The system of claim 19, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by an electrical signal.
22. The system of claim 19, in which
when the imaging switch is actuated, it activates the one of the light source and the camera, and
when the actuation is discontinued, activating is continued for a period of time.
23. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
a screen outside the interior for displaying the imaged interior.
24. The system of claim 23, in which
a component of the camera is fixedly attached to the enclosure.
25. The system of claim 23, wherein
a component of the camera is mounted on the door.
26. The system of claim 23, in which
the screen is coupled to the door.
27. The system of claim 23, in which
the screen is formed integrally with the door.
28. The system of claim 23, in which
the screen is further adapted to display television images.
29. The system of claim 23, further comprising:
a conductor for transferring from the camera to the screen a signal encoding the image.
30. The system of claim 23, further comprising:
an imaging switch for activating, when the door is shut, at least one of the screen and the camera.
31. The system of claim 30, in which
the screen is further adapted to display television images, and
the imaging switch is further adapted to control which one of the imaged interior and television images is displayed by the screen.
32. The system of claim 30, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by a pushbutton.
33. The system of claim 30, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by an electrical signal.
34. The system of claim 30, in which
when the imaging switch is actuated, it activates the one of the screen and the camera, and
when the actuation is discontinued, activating is continued for a period of time.
35. The system of claim 1, further comprising:
a second camera coupled with the enclosure and positioned to image at least a portion of the interior when the door is shut.
36. The system of claim 35, in which
a component of the first camera is fixedly attached to the door, and a component of the second camera is fixedly attached to the enclosure.
37. The system of claim 35, further comprising:
an imaging switch for activating, when the door is shut, at least one of the screen, the first camera and the second camera.
38. The system of claim 37, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by a pushbutton.
39. The system of claim 37, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to be actuated by an electrical signal.
40. The system of claim 37, in which
the imaging switch is adapted to activate the first camera and the second camera.
41. A device comprising:
means for imaging at least a portion of an interior of a home refrigerator while a door usable for accessing the interior remains shut;
means for generating a signal that encodes the imaged interior; and
means for displaying the imaged interior on a screen located outside the interior responsive to receiving the signal.
42. The refrigerator of claim 41, further comprising:
means for storing the image.
43. The refrigerator of claim 41, in which
the means for imaging images in response to perceiving a switch being actuated.
44. The refrigerator of claim 43, in which
the switch is actuated by pushing a button.
45. The refrigerator of claim 43, in which
the switch is actuated by receiving a command signal.
46. The refrigerator of claim 45, in which
the command signal is received over a network.
47. The refrigerator of claim 41, further comprising:
means for illuminating the interior while imaging.
48. A method for a home refrigerator comprising:
imaging at least a portion of an interior of the refrigerator while a door usable for accessing the interior remains shut.
49. The method of claim 48, in which
imaging is performed in response to perceiving a switch being actuated.
50. The method of claim 49, in which
the switch is actuated by pushing a button.
51. The method of claim 49, in which
the switch is actuated by receiving a command signal.
52. The method of claim 51, in which
the command signal is received over a network.
53. The method of claim 49, further comprising:
storing the image.
54. The method of claim 53, further comprising:
setting a SAME flag upon storing the image; and
unsetting the SAME flag if the door is subsequently opened.
55. The method of claim 54, wherein
no new image is generated if the switch is actuated and the SAME flag is set.
56. The method of claim 48, further comprising:
illuminating the interior while imaging.
57. The method of claim 56, in which
illuminating is performed in response to perceiving a switch being actuated.
58. The method of claim 57, in which
the switch is actuated by pushing a button.
59. The method of claim 57, in which
the switch is actuated by receiving a command signal.
60. The method of claim 48, further comprising:
generating a signal that encodes the imaged interior; and
displaying the imaged interior on a screen located outside the interior responsive to receiving the signal.
61. The method of claim 60, in which
displaying is performed in response to perceiving a switch being actuated.
62. The method of claim 61, in which
the switch is actuated by pushing a button.
63. The method of claim 61, in which
the switch is actuated by receiving a command signal.
64. A method for using a home refrigerator comprising:
viewing on a screen a displayed image of an interior of the refrigerator while a door usable for accessing the interior remains shut.
65. The method of claim 64, in which
the screen is attached to the refrigerator.
66. The method of claim 64, further comprising:
actuating a switch to cause the screen to display the imaged interior while the door remains shut.
67. The method of claim 66, in which
the switch is located on the refrigerator.
68. The method of claim 66, in which
the switch is actuated by pushing a button.
69. The method of claim 66, in which
actuating the switch also causes the interior to be illuminated.
70. The method of claim 66, in which
the switch is actuated by transmitting a command signal.
71. The method of claim 70, in which
the command signal is transmitted over a network.
Description
BACKGROUND

1. Field of the Invention

The present document is related to the field of home refrigerators, and more specifically to energy saving devices and methods for assisting in deciding which food to take by viewing the interior of the home refrigerator without opening the door.

2. Description of the Related Art

Home refrigerators, including freezers, are used for preserving foods by keeping them cool. A refrigerator includes a machine that cools the air in its interior. In general the machine works until the air in the interior is cooled down to a set low temperature. Then the machine stops, and the air temperature slowly rises again. When it has risen above a set temperature, the machine starts again.

The machine works by drawing electricity from a home wall outlet. Accordingly, its operation contributes to the energy cost that a consumer has to pay for.

Every time the refrigerator door is opened, cold air pours out, because it is heavier than the warmer air at the usual ambient temperature of a home. The cold air is replaced in the interior by the warmer air in the room. This increases the average air temperature inside the refrigerator enclosure, and the cooling machine has to work again to reduce it.

Opening the refrigerator door is necessary to move food in and out of the refrigerator, and therefore that loss is unavoidable. A larger problem, however, is that the refrigerator door is often kept open for longer times, and that is in mere contemplation of what food to remove. This unnecessarily increases the consumer's energy cost. The larger problem is now described in more detail.

FIG. 1A is a perspective diagram of a refrigerator 100 in the prior art. Refrigerator 100 includes an enclosure 102 that defines an interior for storing food, and keeping it cold. It also has two doors 105 and 108, which can be opened for accessing the interior. For example, door 105 can be opened by being pulled according to the direction of arrow 10. When doors 105, 108 are shut, they seal the interior substantially airtightly.

While doors 105, 108 are closed, a user is prevented from seeing the interior. In a number of instances, a user might not even know what foods are in the interior, and thus be able to make a decision as to what food to remove.

FIG. 1B is a combination perspective and conceptual diagram illustrating a use of refrigerator 100, with its door 105 opened to expose an interior compartment 103. Items 123, 124 in compartment 103 are viewed according to arrow 120. In some instances, viewed items 123, 124 are further being considered, according to cloud 125, for making a decision. During that time, cold air 126 is pouring out of interior compartment 103.

FIG. 1C is a combination perspective and conceptual diagram illustrating a use of refrigerator 100. Door 105 is still open, and a decision has been made. Item 124 is being removed from interior 103 according to arrow 130. Cold air 136 is still pouring out of interior compartment 103, but generally not as much as while making a decision, because it takes less time to remove a decided upon item.

FIG. 1D is a perspective diagram of refrigerator 100, after the removing step of FIG. 1C. Door 105 has been closed again, by being moved in a direction according to arrow 140. No more cold air is pouring out, but the cooling machine needs to work again, to replenish cold air 126 and 136. As already stated above, replenishing cold air 126 unnecessarily increases the consumer's energy cost.

BRIEF SUMMARY

The present document describes how some of the problems and limitations of the prior art can be overcome. In one embodiment, a home refrigerator system includes an enclosure that defines an interior for storing food, a machine for cooling the interior, a door usable for accessing the interior, and a camera for imaging the interior while the door is shut. The camera generates a signal encoding the image of the interior, and the signal is suitable for inputting in a screen.

This way, a person can view on a screen a generated image of the refrigerator interior, and make their decision, while the door remains closed. If they want nothing from the refrigerator, they need not open the door at all. If they want something, then they need to open the refrigerator door only for the short time it takes to remove the desired item.

An advantage is that no cold air pours out from the refrigerator, while the person is making their decision. This way, the cooling machine needs to operate for less time, which saves on the consumer's energy cost.

These and other features and advantages will become more readily apparent from the following Detailed Description, which proceeds with reference to the drawings, in which:

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1A is a perspective diagram of a home refrigerator in the prior art.

FIG. 1B is a combination perspective and conceptual diagram illustrating a use of the refrigerator of FIG. 1A, with its door opened while the items stored therein are being viewed to make a decision.

FIG. 1C is a combination perspective and conceptual diagram illustrating a use of the refrigerator of FIG. 1A, with its door opened while taking an item decided upon during the decision session of FIG. 1B.

FIG. 1D is a perspective diagram of the refrigerator of FIG. 1A, with its door closed again, after the taking session of FIG. 1C.

FIG. 2 is a section diagram of an elevation of components of a home refrigerator system made according to an embodiment of the invention.

FIG. 3 is a system diagram showing the interoperability of salient components of home refrigerator systems.

FIG. 4A is a perspective diagram of a home refrigerator system that includes a screen.

FIG. 4B is a combination perspective and conceptual diagram illustrating an operation of the home refrigerator system of FIG. 4A.

FIG. 5 is a perspective diagram of a home refrigerator system, shown with its doors opened so as to reveal aspects of its interior.

FIG. 6 is a diagram showing a network connection of a controller.

FIG. 7 is a section diagram of an elevation of a home refrigerator system.

FIG. 8 is a diagram showing reflection properties of a possible mirror that can be used in the refrigerator system of FIG. 7.

FIG. 9 is a combination time and conceptual diagram to illustrate the advantage of the described home refrigerator system over the prior art.

FIG. 10 is a flowchart illustrating a method.

FIG. 11 is a flowchart illustrating another method.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

As has been mentioned, the present document describes home refrigerator systems that image their interior, and methods. As will be appreciated from the below, the teachings of this document may be practiced either by retrofitting a prior art refrigerator, or by manufacturing it anew according to this description. The description is now provided in more detail.

FIG. 2 is a section diagram of an elevation of components 200 of a home refrigerator system. These system components 200 include an enclosure 202, formed similarly to enclosure 102. Enclosure 202 defines an interior for storing food.

In the example of FIG. 2, the interior is divided in two interior compartments 203 and 204. Compartment 203 is for a regular refrigerator, and compartment 204 is for a freezer section. While freezer section 204 is shown located above compartment 203, that is only by way of example, and not of limitation. In other embodiments freezer section 204 may be arranged other ways, such as in parallel with compartment 203 and having the same full height.

The refrigerator system of FIG. 2 includes a door 205 usable for accessing interior compartment 203, and another door 208 usable for accessing interior compartment 204. Doors 205, 208 can be opened for accessing their respective interiors, and can be shut for sealing them substantially airtightly, to keep the cool air in.

In the example of FIG. 2, two food items 223, 224 are shown in interior 203. This is by way of example and not of limitation, however, and an embodiment may be implemented while the refrigerator is empty.

The refrigerator system of FIG. 2 also includes a machine 209 for cooling the interior. Machine 209, along with the above described elements of refrigerator 200, may be practiced as in the prior art.

The refrigerator system of FIG. 2 also includes a camera 252, for generating an image of at least a portion of interior compartment 203 when door 205 is shut. Furthermore, one or more additional cameras may optionally be provided, such as to image interior compartment 204 when door 208 is shut, different views of interior compartment 203, and so on.

Camera 252 is preferably aimed at interior compartment 203, and arranged to image as much as possible of it. In the embodiment of FIG. 2, camera 252 would generate an image of items 223, 224.

The components of camera 252 may be configured in a number of ways. In one embodiment, camera 252 is disposed wholly in interior compartment 203. In other embodiments, some of its components are distributed, with at least one of them outside interior compartment 203.

Camera 252 is coupled with enclosure 202 in a number of ways. Coupling may be either fixed or removable. In one embodiment, at least one component of camera 252 is mounted on door 205, as also shown in FIG. 2. In another embodiment, at least one component of camera 252 is attached to enclosure 202, such as to one of the inside walls.

Camera 252 is made preferably as a digital camera, still or video. Being digital, it has an array of sensors at its focal plane for forming an electronic image of the interior. The sensors, if implemented using Charged Coupled Device (CCD) technology, usually work better when the ambient temperature is not too high. They are therefore bound to work well in interior compartment 203 that is cooled.

In an optional embodiment, the refrigerator system of FIG. 2 also includes at least a portion of a conductor 282. Conductor 282 may be coupled with a component of camera 252, for transferring as a signal the generated image of the interior.

The signal may be transferred along conductor 282 according to the direction of an arrow 284. Conductor 282 may be coupled to a screen 286, located outside the interior. As will be also understood from the below, screen 286 may, but need not be a part of a refrigerator system according to the invention.

Upon receiving the signal, screen 286 is suitable for displaying the imaged interior. A user can thus view an image of items 223, 224, without opening door 205, and decide whether they want any of them.

FIG. 3 is a diagram of a system 300. System 300 shows some salient elements of home refrigerators, to explain their interoperability.

Camera 252 is adapted to image food items 223, 224 in interior compartment 203. In one embodiment, camera 252 operates in the dark, with its sensors working in the infrared. This is not preferred, however, for at least two reasons. First, being from the infrared, any generated image will seem unnatural to the human eye. Second, since food items 223, 224 will probably be at about the same temperature, and since infrared imaging is temperature dependent, there may not be enough differentiation between food items 223 and 224 to form a useful image. If the image is not useful, then, when the door is opened, items 223, 224 would seem different, and the decision process may start again anew.

In the preferred embodiment, a light source 372 is provided according to the invention, such as a light bulb. Light source 372 illuminates interior compartment 203, while camera 252 images interior compartment 203.

In one optional embodiment, a light bulb already located inside interior compartment 203 according to the prior art is advantageously used to also assist in imaging. While that light bulb is turned on automatically upon opening door 205, light source 372 can then also be turned on when door 205 is shut, and imaging is performed.

Camera 252 may be arranged so that its field of view avoids a light source, if one is provided, such as light source 372. This way, such a light source is prevented from dominating the image and saturating the sensors of the focal plane array. One way of accomplishing that is to locate light source 372 behind camera 252. In one embodiment, light source 372 is provided along with camera 252. Additionally, if light source 372 is provided close to camera 252, shadows will further be minimized. In other embodiments, more than one light sources may be used to minimize shadows, but it will be harder to keep them all out of the field of view of camera 252.

By way of operation, light source 372 transmits a light beam 371 towards items 223, 224. Items 223, 224 thus reflect respective light beams 373, 374 towards camera 252. Camera 252 receives reflected light beams 373, 374, and thus generates a signal encoding an image of items 223, 224.

The generated signal propagates along conductor 282 towards screen 286. Screen 286 receives the signal, and displays the image. Not all actual components are shown here—for example screen 286 is preferably associated with a screen driver, and so on.

It should be noted that screen 286, along with a portion of conductor 282 may or may not be part of system 300. In some embodiments, all components are on board the refrigerator, while in others they are distributed. In yet others, the signal can produce an image on a selected one of different screens.

The invention further optionally includes an imaging switch 359. In some embodiments switch 359 is part of system 300, while in others it is not. Switch 359 may be advantageously implemented also in conjunction with other switches, mechanical, electrical or implemented in software, and also with a switch that controls light source 372 both when the door opens and also for imaging.

Switch 359 activates camera 252 for imaging, when the refrigerator door is shut. In some embodiments, actuating imaging switch 362 activates concurrently both camera 252 and light source 372, if the latter is provided. In some embodiments, activation continues for a period of time, such as a few seconds, after imaging switch 362 is no longer actuated.

In the embodiment of FIG. 3, imaging switch 359 is adapted to be actuated by a pushbutton 362. Actuation is by the user pushing button 362 in a direction according to arrow 319.

In another optional embodiment, imaging switch 359 is adapted to be actuated by an electrical signal, wired or wireless. Such an actuating electrical signal may be received, for example, by a home computer network such as is described later in this document.

In addition, switch 359 may control receipt of electrical power by the components of system 300, and so on. It is most advantageous to supply electrical power to these components power from a wall outlet.

System 300 also preferably includes a controller 358, which may be implemented either by itself, or in conjunction with another controller of refrigerator 200. Controller 358 may be implemented as a microprocessor, or in conjunction with software, and controls operation of the components of system 300. Additional components may be included, such as a memory for storing a program to control controller 358, and to store data, such as acquired images.

In an optional embodiment, at least the last the generated image is stored in the memory. In a further optional embodiment, a SAME flag is set, upon storing the last image. The SAME flag refers to whether the image is likely to have changed, and may be stored in hardware or in software. The image is not likely to have changed if the door is not opened. Accordingly, the SAME flag may be unset if the door is subsequently opened. According to this embodiment, no new image is generated if the switch is actuated and the SAME flag is set. Indeed, the same image may be returned to the user who actuates switch 359, further conserving energy.

In the example of FIG. 3, controller 358 and switch 359 are shown outside interior compartment 203. This is only for illustration, however, and not required. In other implementations, one or both of controller 358 and switch 359 may be inside interior compartment 203.

FIG. 4A is a perspective diagram of a home refrigerator system 400. Refrigerator system 400 includes an enclosure 402 that defines an interior for storing food, and doors 405 and 408 for accessing its interior.

Refrigerator system 400 also includes a screen 486, which is provided on a base 485. In the example of FIG. 4A, base 485 and screen 486 are provided on door 405. In one embodiment they are coupled to door 405, and in another embodiment they are formed integrally with door 405.

Screen 486 is suited for viewing the imaged interior of refrigerator 400 from the outside. Screen 486 receives a signal with the image of the interior from a camera (not shown in FIG. 4) inside refrigerator 400.

In an optional embodiment, base 485 and screen 486 are also adapted to display television images (“TV”). Indeed, a company by the name LG Electronics headquartered in Seoul, Korea manufactures and sells refrigerators with a flat screen on a door that is adapted to show TV. Such a screen could be adapted to also display an image of the interior of the refrigerator.

In addition, pushbutton 462, and controls 463, 464 are further provided on base 485 to control operation of screen 486 and the imaging process. If the invention is embodied with a screen that can also show TV, then pushbutton 462, and controls 463, 464 are used to control which image will be displayed by screen 486.

Pushbutton 462 and controls 463, 464 are preferably implemented to work with an imaging switch, such as was described with imaging switch 359 in FIG. 3. For example, pushbutton 462 can have the function of pushbutton 362 of FIG. 3. This way, the imaging switch can control screen 486 in addition to the other components of system 300.

In general, when the doors of a refrigerator are closed, the user does not know what items are in it, except by memory. And memory is not accurate guide, when the refrigerator is accessed by more than one people in a household independently of each other. The invention, however, enables knowing without opening the door.

FIG. 4B is a diagram illustrating a possible operation of refrigerator system 400 of FIG. 4A.

Pushbutton 462 is first pushed according to direction of arrow 419. This causes an image 418 of the interior of refrigerator 400 to appear on screen 486.

Image 418 is then viewed according to arrow 420, and contemplated according to a cloud 425. This takes place while a decision is being reached, without needing to open door 405.

FIG. 5 is a perspective diagram of a refrigerator system 500. Refrigerator system 500 includes an enclosure 502 that defines an interior divided into an interior compartment 503 and an interior compartment 504. Refrigerator system 500 also has two doors 505 and 508, usable for accessing respectively interior compartments 503 and 504.

Doors 505, 508 are shown opened. Refrigerator system 500 includes a camera 552 mounted on door 505, and a camera 553 mounted in interior compartment 503. Refrigerator system 500 also includes a camera 592 mounted on door 508, and a camera 593 mounted in interior compartment 504. Refrigerator system 500 further includes a light source 557 mounted in interior compartment 503, and a light source 597 mounted in interior compartment 504.

The multiple cameras 552, 553, 592, 593 may be operated by multiple controls, such as pushbutton 462 and controls 463, 464 shown in FIG. 4A. A number of different implementations are possible. For example, actuating pushbutton 462 can toggle between activating the camera 552 and camera 553, for receiving different views of interior 503.

The described home refrigerator systems may optionally have additional features. For example, imaging can be associated with controllable temporary locking. Activating the display can unlock the door after a while, such as a few seconds. This way, children may be trained to look first, without opening the door. Of course, the locking feature can be deactivated when not desired.

Another optional feature may have to do with recording images. The refrigerator may have a recording feature, which may be optionally activated and deactivated. Opening one of the doors can cause imaging, and also initiate recording of the generated images. This type of door-activated imaging need not cause displaying the interior, which can be viewed anyway since the door is open. Closing the door would discontinue imaging and recording.

The images can be stored in a memory, such as one associated with controller 358, and can even be password protected. A playback feature can be used to track recent activity. A clock can further be used to date stamp and time stamp images, and make playback more informative. For such increased functionalities, controls 463, 464 may also include a keypad.

In another embodiment, a home network connection can be additionally included, for guiding the image to a screen. This way the contents of the home refrigerator system may be checked remotely. The connection may include a wireless segment, as will be described in the example below.

FIG. 6 is a diagram showing a network connection of a controller 658. Controller 658 can be a controller such as controller 358 of FIG. 3. Controller 658 can be assisted by an electronic home communications network 670 formed by a router and so on. Or network 670 can be similar to the one described in U.S. patent application published as Document Number US 20010054291 A1 on Dec. 27, 2001.

Controller 658 can be coupled to network 670 by a connection 682. Network 670 can be coupled to a home desktop computer 685 by a connection 683. One or more of connections 682, 683 may be wireless. A connection is thus formed between controller 658 and computer 685, and is considered to have segments 682, 683.

Computer 685 includes an interface for generating a command signal 674 that encodes a viewing command. Signal 674 is transmitted along connection 683. Network 670 routes command signal 674 along connection 682 to controller 658. Controller 658 thus receives command signal 674 and generates a signal 684 encoding an image of the interior of the refrigerator. The image is generated by actuating one or more cameras, and also optionally a light source, as described above. Signal 684 is transmitted along connection 682. Network 670 routes signal 684 along connection 683 back to computer 685. Computer 685 then displays image 618 that is encoded in signal 684 on a screen 686.

In addition, network 670 may be coupled to a global network such as the internet, and also to any number of other devices, such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), and so on. This enables a shopper to make an updated check of the contents of the home refrigerator, while they are physically in a store shopping for food items.

In yet another optional embodiment, a home refrigerator system additionally includes a mirror to assist in the imaging. An example is described below.

FIG. 7 is a section diagram of an elevation of a home refrigerator system 700. Refrigerator system 700 includes an enclosure 702 that defines an interior divided into an interior compartment 703 and an interior compartment 704. Food items 723, 724 are shown in interior compartment 703. Refrigerator system 700 also has two doors 705 and 708, for accessing respectively interior compartment 703 and interior compartment 704. A machine 709 is provided to cool interior compartments 703 and 704.

Refrigerator system 700 includes a camera 752 mounted on door 705, and a screen 768 for imaging what is viewed by camera 752. A pushbutton 762 activates imaging. A light source 757 is also turned on in interior compartment 703, to assist in imaging as described above.

A mirror 777 is additionally attached to an inside wall of interior compartment 703, such as the back wall opposite camera 752. Mirror 777 assists camera 752 in imaging food items 723, 724, such as by showing aspects outside the direct field of view of camera 752.

Mirror 777 may be a regular mirror, reflecting uniformly from its entire surface. In other embodiments, the surface of mirror 777 may have alternating areas of a first reflection characteristic and of a second reflection characteristic, as will be described in the example below.

FIG. 8 is a diagram showing reflection properties of mirror 777, which is made according to one of many possible options. Mirror 777 has areas 812 of a first reflection characteristic, which is to reflect normally. In addition, mirror 777 has areas 814 of a second reflection characteristic, which is not to reflect light at all. In this example, areas 814 are formed in terms of a line grid, and can be made as line marks on mirror 777.

The result is that objects viewed via mirror 777 will be marked by a superimposed image of the line grid of non-reflecting areas 814. This way, the user will be able to differentiate image portions received directly by the camera from those received by reflection from mirror 777.

FIG. 9 is a combination time and conceptual diagram to illustrate the advantage of a home refrigerator system described in this document over one in the prior art. An axis TIME illustrates significant time periods (BEFORE, DECIDING, TAKING and AFTER) for an event when something is taken from a refrigerator.

For the prior art, the events of the significant time periods BEFORE, DECIDING, TAKING and AFTER are depicted by FIG. 1A, FIG. 1B, FIG. 1C, and FIG. 1D respectively. The door is closed during time periods BEFORE and AFTER. The door is open during time periods DECIDING and TAKING. Time period DECIDING is shown as longer than time period TAKING, because it generally takes longer to decide about an item in the refrigerator, than to take it out. And time period TAKING lasts zero time if, upon viewing, a decision is made to not take any of the items stored in the interior.

While the door is open during time periods DECIDING and TAKING, cold air 126 and 136 respectively is pouring out, as seen above. Cold air 126 is shown as more than cold air 136, because time period DECIDING is generally longer than time period TAKING, as discussed above.

Using a home refrigerator system that images the interior, however, an image of the interior is displayed during the DECIDING time period. Such is shown, for example, in FIG. 4B, and FIG. 6. During that time, the refrigerator door need not be open. The user can decide while looking at the image only. Since the door remains closed, cold air 126 is prevented from pouring out. This results in saving as discussed above. These savings are reduced somewhat by the electrical energy expended to generate and the display the image of the interior.

Referring now to FIG. 10, a flowchart 1000 is used to illustrate one of many possible methods of operation of a home refrigerator system. The method of flowchart 1000 may also be practiced by home refrigerator systems made according to the invention, such as home refrigerator system 200, home refrigerator system 400, home refrigerator system 500 and home refrigerator system 700.

According to a box 1010, actuation of a switch is perceived. The switch may be implemented as described in connection with imaging switch 359. For example, the switch may be actuated by pushing a button, or by receiving an electrical signal.

According to a next box 1020, at least a portion of an interior of the refrigerator is imaged. Imaging is performed by a camera aimed at the interior, while a door usable for accessing the interior remains shut.

According to an optional box 1030, the interior is illuminated while imaging. In one embodiment, illuminating is performed in response to perceiving the switch being actuated.

According to a next box 1040, a signal is generated that encodes the imaged interior. The signal is guided to a screen for displaying the image.

According to an optional next box 1050, the imaged interior is displayed on a screen located outside the refrigerator interior. Displaying is performed from the received signal. In one embodiment, displaying is performed in response to perceiving a switch being actuated.

Referring now to FIG. 11, a flowchart 1100 is used to illustrate one of many possible methods of using a home refrigerator system. The method of flowchart 1100 may also be practiced by a user using home refrigerator systems made according to the invention, such as home refrigerator system 200, home refrigerator system 400, home refrigerator system 500 and home refrigerator system 700.

According to an optional box 1110, the user actuates a switch. Actuating is performed while a door usable for accessing the refrigerator interior remains shut. The switch may be implemented as described in connection with imaging switch 359. For example, the switch may be actuated by pushing a button, or by transmitting an electrical signal. The switch and/or the button may be located on the refrigerator. Alternately, actuating may be performed remotely, as per the above.

According to an optional box 1120, actuating the switch causes the interior to be illuminated, while the door remains shut. This may be implemented by a light source, such as light source 372.

According to a next box 1130, the user views on a screen a displayed image of the interior of the refrigerator. In an optional but preferred embodiment, actuating the switch causes the screen to display the imaged interior, while the door remains shut.

The screen may be implemented in any convenient way for displaying an image, such as screens 286, 486 and 686 described above. Of those, at least screen 486 is located on the refrigerator, while screen 686 is not located on the refrigerator.

A person skilled in the art will be able to practice the present invention in view of the description present in this document, which is to be taken as a whole. Numerous details have been set forth in order to provide a more thorough understanding of the invention. In other instances, well-known features have not been described in detail in order not to obscure unnecessarily the invention.

While the invention has been disclosed in its preferred form, the specific embodiments as disclosed and illustrated herein are not to be considered in a limiting sense. Indeed, it should be readily apparent to those skilled in the art in view of the present description that the invention may be modified in numerous ways. The inventor regards the subject matter of the invention to include all combinations and subcombinations of the various elements, features, functions and/or properties disclosed herein.

The following claims define certain combinations and subcombinations, which are regarded as novel and non-obvious. Additional claims for other combinations and subcombinations of features, functions, elements and/or properties may be presented in this or a related document.

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Classifications
U.S. Classification62/125, 62/331
International ClassificationF25B49/00, F25D23/12, F25D17/04, F25D15/00
Cooperative ClassificationF25D29/00, F25D2500/06, F25B2600/07, F25D2400/361
European ClassificationF25D29/00