Low End Theory: Then Everything Went All Fuzzy...


By Brendan I. Koerner

Fuzzy logic is one of those high-falutin' concepts that I realize I'm too dim to fully comprehend. I mean, okay, I get the part about partial truths between yes and no, or one and zero. Just don't ask me to get up in front of a group of inquisitive eight-year-olds and explain fuzzy logic's finer points; I'd be exposed as a fraud within minutes.

Leave it to The Man to exploit my ignorance by turning "fuzzy logic" into a marketing catchphrase, one designed to gussy up the humble rice cooker. Exhibit A in this trend is this $200 unit from Zojirushi, alluringly called the Neuro Fuzzy Rice Cooker and Warmer. Laden with microprocessors that (per the hype sheet) "allow the rice cooker to 'think' for itself," the Zojirushi surely makes a mean bowl o' unadorned starch. But twenty times better than the rice I prepare in my beloved $10 Chinatown special? Really?

What we've got here is a textbook marketing play: using lingo that the public recognizes, but doesn't really grok, in order to rescue a product category from value-store Purgatory. A dissection after the jump, as well as a (somewhat) spirited defense of the humble $10 rice cooker. PLUS: Who knew Gadget Grips had so many fans?

Some of you with eagle-grade eyes will recall that this isn't the first time that Gizmodo has tackled the topic of rice cookers; we linked to a Wired test last month, in a post that attracted some unusually impassioned comments (including the semi-tasteful chides of some Asian readers who questioned Wired's decision to have a white reporter tackle the assignment). Most notable among the responses, however, was this one from "flipped4gizmos":

Huh? I eat rice like it's going out of style, and use a $15 Panasonic. Rice is perfect every time. The trick is knowing how much water to add to the type of rice your cooking. Now that's fuzzy logic...

I gotta say, I tend to agree. With a little culinary tact and wisdom, a low-end cooker sans circuit boards will cook up a really, really good mess of rice. (My personal secret is to lightly—lightly!—salt the rice.) Since I mastered the nuances of the bargain rice cooker some eight or nine years ago, I've never yearned for a much fancier model—maybe one with an LCD readout instead of a mere on-off light, but that's about the only modification I ever craved.

But imagine you're a major appliance maker, sick of competing in the crowded toaster, microwave, and food processor spaces. Where do you seize the advantage? Why, by finding a product category long-ago surrendered to unbranded $10 models—rice cookers. But you can't just say, Okay, people will pay $50 just because our cooker is going to say Panasonic or Sanyo instead of Happy Lucky Go-Go Products Ltd. No, let's shoot for the moon and charge $200 for it, and justify the expense by convincing the consumer that they're not just buying a rice cooker—they're establishing themselves at the forefront of the artificial-intelligence revolution.

And so reluctant kudos to the junior marketing exec who realized that the phrase "fuzzy logic" holds a certain mystical allure for Joe Q. Consumer. Like a Hemi engine, it's one of those techie things we've been conditioned to think of as innately impressive, although the reality is disappointingly mundane: simply by adjusting cooking temperature according to the desired amount of doneness, an appliance can be said to be employing fuzzy logic.

Lemme take this opportunity to finally, for the first time ever, put my English degree to use: it's all about the word "fuzzy" on this one. It initially sounds out of place in a technological context, but that's the genius in it; it evokes a future era of surgical androids and pleasurebots, who will care for you more tenderly than your own family. I'm sure this isn't what mathematics maven Lofti Asker Zadeh's had in mind when he founded fuzzy logic in the '60s; he could easily (and accurately) have called it "approximation logic", and Madison Avenue would never have taken a second glance.

But fuzzy it was, and I'm sure the folks over at Zojirushi light candles in Zadeh's honor every morning. I mean, a rice cooker that boasts trademarked "neuro fuzzy" technology? Marketing genius. I bet that a good number of those who buy such a cooker half-expect the device to also do the dishes, then sit down for a nice game of chess.

What this reminds me of most is when Dockers started touting its khakis as enhanced with stain-fighting nanotechnology. Yes, Levis was claiming to be manipulating individual atoms in the name of making your pants better able to fend off soy sauce splatters. A very clever Popular Science reporter revealed what a fraud this was, by confronting an unfortunate 1-800-DOCKERS operator with her suspicions.

Low End Theory: Then Everything Went All Fuzzy...

The question is, what's the next low-end treasure to get high-ended with hyperbolic techspeak? I'm going to nominate the inflatable mattress, which my beloved Gem Gem Gem value store is now selling for $14.99. All some company needs to do is stick a few microchips in there—say, ones that automate reinflation if the air pressure gets too low. Then market the mattress as featuring automorphic forms technology. Charge $200 for each mattress, and start saving up to purchase Nsonga Island.

GADGET GRIPS TRYOUT: Wow, pretty amazed by how many Gadget Grips fans there are out there, based on the response to my pre-Xmas slagging of the product. Fair's fair, so I'm going to give Gadget Grips a chance; just ordered a packet online, and I'll be putting 'em through their paces over the next few weeks. (Note to Gizmodo overlords: Expect expense report for $5.47 in coming days.) If they work as well as "kapitan" and "mjsmitho" claimed in comments, expect a humiliating retraction in this space. But if they're as lousy as they look, y'all owe me a 24-ouncer of Beck's. Deal?

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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