Doing the laundry gets a high-tech spin

What will they think of next? Now there's no excuse not to empty the dryer on time

A college student is sitting in her dorm room copying equations from her physics book when she gets the call: Her second load of laundry has just finished washing. She bookmarks the page, grabs her debit card, and races down the hallway to remove the load before the mad dash of students whose computers also just alerted them of the free machine.

Alexia Regner does not have the benefit of such a high-tech luxury, but as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she wishes she did. The engineering mechanics/astronautics major lives in one of the school's largest dormitories.

"Laundry is definitely a hassle, because not only do you have to sign up for a time and make sure you're there, but the dryer takes about two hours," Ms. Regner says. That's time that could be well-spent in the library.

In an environment where hundreds of students share only a handful of washers and dryers, knowing which machines are available can prove highly useful: Washer 4 is now empty, and dryers 8 and 9 haven't spun for at least an hour.

IBM and USA Technologies have decided to cash in on this niche. They united earlier this year after positive preliminary tests in Boston College laundry rooms.

Over the next few months, the companies will retrofit 9,000 machines with the "e-Suds" system on university campuses in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Kentucky.

"The kids love the program," says Linda Riley, associate director of operations and financial management at Boston College. "They love using technology to make something as bland as doing their laundry interesting and high-tech."

College students are often the earliest adapters of the latest communication gadgets, in part because they grew up with the technology, and also because they regularly save time by instant messaging their friends, registering for classes online, and surfing the Net from their cellphones.

That is, if they can afford these gadgets. "The only problem is that not all students have access to a computer," Regner points out. "But it wouldn't make things any worse for them – only easier for those who do."

What may sound like a high-tech luxury is, partially, an inventive application of 20-year-old technology. Companies introduced debit devices for vending machines in the early 1980s and have been building Web-enabled machines for almost 10 years.

Here's how it works. Similar to a "buddy list" in instant messaging, a website tracks which machines are available and which are not. E-Suds even enables the selection and dispersal of soap and fabric softener right from the website.

After loading a machine and paying with a debit or credit card or by cellphone, the student can leave that stuffy laundry room and hit the books.

When the clothes are done, an e-mail is sent to a cellphone number or to a computer to alert the student. That allows him or her to remove the clothes promptly before they wrinkle – and in plenty of time for the next person in line.

E-Suds marketers predict success in laundromats beyond the college campus. Laudromat owners might someday monitor machine performance, calculate revenue, and check water temperature and filter clogs – all from the comfort of their home computers.

Though E-Suds may prove popular in years to come, will it deter students from hauling their laundry home on weekend visits? It depends on their budgets.

Automated laundering may be more efficient, but college kids can probably do the elementary math: Unless dorm laundry is free, lugging those loads home will always be less costly.

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