Cooking up the connected kitchen

With all the attention given to home automation, you'd think that more products would be devoted to the "heart of the home." The kitchen probably has more gizmos-per-inch than any other room in the house. Yet most home connectivity efforts have left the kitchen connectivity on the back burner. That's in the process of changing – with some vendors, at least, turning the innovation heat up to High.

The reasons are fairly obvious. The low-hanging fruit in home automation is products for security, environment, and cost savings. Fear of a break-in and budget concerns are strong emotions for homeowners. That makes it easier to define what a consumer wants: status updates (is my garage door open?), remote control (if it is, close it), and energy/money-saving options (set the heating and cooling to optimize power company rates). And, importantly for those designing tech answers, many general home automation needs can be controlled in a binary fashion: The lights are turned on, or they're turned off.

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Yet, as both a self-professed computer geek and an avid cook (what, doesn't everyone own 400 cookbooks?!), I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. So when I went to the 2013 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), my primary purpose was to stalk the aisles for the latest kitchen-centric connectivity offerings. I found several ingredients for the connected kitchen, but the process isn't cooked yet. As it turns out: That's probably a good thing. And it makes this a very exciting time.

I could have given you a slide show of gizmos that somehow belong to the cooking or eating categories. Let's not, because the Hapi-Fork (meant to encourage you to slow down the speed at which you eat) isn't really about home automation at all. In a moment I show you what's currently available, but first I think it's important to consider the issues that are contributing to the slow-food kitchen connectivity effort. Because this isn't a technology problem to be solved; it's one of usability.

My conclusion is that the vendors currently are mostly thinking-out-loud. Manufacturers – I spoke with Whirlpool, Dacor, Haier, and Bosch, though those aren't the only vendors involved – are coming out with a few products that are useful (and generally available only on high-end appliances). The kitchen automation features largely are aimed, by my observation, at answering, "What could we do? What would people pay for?" The fact that none of us are sure of the answer makes this whole topic fascinating.

A recipe for success What do people want their kitchen equipment to do? Unlike the remote-control automation of security tools, cooking is not binary. It might be nice to turn on the oven before you leave work, so that it's pre-heated by the time you get home, but nothing is going to put the food in the oven for you. Nor do you necessarily want it to do so; many of us like chopping vegetables and stirring and so on.

From the CES conversations and my own cooking-inspired experiences, I think these are among the main desires for kitchen connectivity.

Reduce complexity. As manufacturers add more functionality to these embedded systems, it gets harder for us to find and use the features. A user interface expert would call this "to surface the desired features," but from my view, my existing fancy-schmancy microwave requires me to press at least six buttons before I can bake a potato.

Integrate with other devices. Connectivity does imply integration with the rest of the home network, with the manufacturer (such as when a filter needs to be replaced), and – duh – with the user and her devices.

Be cognizant of tech standards. Whatever budget you're on, you don't want to replace a major kitchen appliance – or even a minor one. If I buy a $2,000 refrigerator, I don't want to have to replace it in five years because its computing features no longer connect to anything useful. If a manufacturer standardizes its interface on, say, Windows 8, and that technology tanks, it can make sales go sour.

Use technology to let us do something new. This is, of course, the money question. We upgrade only when we can accomplish something more efficiently, or even better when there's a heretofore impossible benefit.

Plus, many kitchen appliances are expensive, and that's not the place for a solution in search of a problem, a topic that a recent Slate article explored in Why are smart appliances so stupid?

Cooking up answers The manufacturers want to sell us technology, and we want to buy cool capabilities that actually improve the quality of our lives. What I found surprising, in my own hands-on evaluations, is how often I had a dual-stage response: "That's the dumbest thing I ever saw. (beat) Wait, I want that!"

My first example of that geek/cook response was to Whirlpool's refrigerator that includes a built-in Bluetooth speaker. The CoolVox refrigerator lets users play music through the refrigerator directly from an app on smart- or Bluetooth- enabled devices. "Now consumers can listen to instructional ‘How to Cook' podcasts directly through the refrigerator, play fun/entertaining music while cooking with the kids, and even throw a dinner party and assign specific playlists to each course," crows the press release.

Geez, I thought, who needs that? But wait: I often play music on my iPad while I'm cooking dinner. I can't hear anything over the sound of the food processor, so a speaker makes sense in the kitchen. Except counter space is always at a premium, and I'm not sure I want a Bluetooth speaker to be splattered by duck fat or melted chocolate. Why not use the fridge as a boom box?

Kitchen devices' status reports also seem superfluous, initially. A clothes washing machine can give you a status report about supplies (since you can load it up with a lot of soap, rather like rinse aid in the dishwasher), in the same way your printer can let you know it's running low on ink. The connectivity is early days, though; if a refrigerator tells you that the water filter needs to be replaced, there's no one-button "Well then order another one for me!" option, much less a kitchen brownie to magically install the filter once it arrives. (Why yes, mine has been sitting on the counter for two months, waiting for me to get a round to it. How did you know?)

Yet ... status is not just for the user. As one vendor pointed out, "What if you could get an alert that your Mom's fridge hasn't been opened in three days?" Those of us with aging parents might see that as a compelling up-sell, since a lack of activity might indicate a medical emergency to check out (or at least a phone call, "Mom, you okay?").

At least the standards issue is one that is getting attention. Arrayent showed me its Arrayent Connect Platform, a library for developers that, they promise, "enables low-cost consumer products to connect to value-added smartphone and web applications with unprecedented low cost." Manufacturers that write to their platform (as Whirlpool is doing) can avoid having to think about LAN support, security updates, opening router ports, or dealing with fixed IP addresses (just think, a stove with an IP address ... ). This might sidestep the OS upgrade issues for a kitchen appliance. I doubt it'll solve all the issues, but it's a start. When we say hot products, we mean that literally.

Some vendors are thinking on a larger scale – and selling equipment that is perhaps a harbinger of the future connected kitchen. If you're ready to spend $7,499 for a double-wall oven (and yes, some of us are; I don't collect those cookbooks just for show), you might consider Dacor's Discovery IQ Controller, expected to ship in the summer of 2013. It promises home chefs "the latest technological advances for the kitchen," and runs on the Android OS, powered by a Samsung 1GHZ Processor and 512MB DDR2 RAM.

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Imagine connecting with your oven from your smartphone to adjust the roast's cooking time. When dinner is ready to serve, the oven can notify the chef via text message or push notification, not to mention nag your family on their mobile devices to call them to dinner. Home chefs can access the Dacor Discovery IQ Cooking Application and Guide, suggests Dacor, while simultaneously downloading other popular applications through the Google Play Store, researching new recipes, or viewing cooking video demonstrations wirelessly through a home Wi-Fi network.

And, of course, should the wall oven encounter a problem or require maintenance, IQ will notify the owner with an error message and send an automated report to Dacor for troubleshooting.

Okay, that oven didn't generate an initial response of "How dumb." I proceeded directly to "I want that."

Back burner As I said earlier, the kitchen equipment manufacturers are thinking a lot about where the technology could head, and what problems we actually want to solve. Some showed a taste of what they might produce in a few concept demonstrations, while others, such as Bosch, spent more time asking for input than suggesting ideas.

Haier, for instance, showcased a cordless blender, in which electricity is transmitted using coupling technology, allowing the blender to remotely receive energy without any wires. The transmitter (which provides the electricity) is placed underneath the kitchen worktop. Energy is transferred to the mixer through the worktop, "making a wireless kitchen possible," said the promotional literature.

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Good idea. The execution ... not so much. I sure could use a wireless blender for when it'd be more convenient to bring the blender jar to the basket of strawberries instead of the other way around. But this model, at least as the Haier PR person demonstrated it to me, must sit directly on top of the transmitter. You can't skooch it over a few inches, which I do all the time. The benefit here is no wires (which would be a boon if you have the kitchen island of my dreams), but it's not exactly unconnected. Which is okay, because that's why you show people prototypes: to get feedback and improve the product before you try to sell one.

On the other hand, I can imagine this technology working for something that rarely moves around, such as a toaster. (Apparently this model is available in Japan now; they were showing concept-only for the U.S. at CES.)

Whirlpool showcased a few "visions" of what could be done in the kitchen, such as break apart the big white box called a refrigerator – which keeps all the food at pretty much the same temperature – into several standalone boxes that can be installed throughout the kitchen. Herb storage can include proper lighting as well as the proper temperature and a clear case (really, it was quite pretty); vegetables can be in closed-in boxes that are configured as drawers. If I use a lot of herbs but never buy meat, I can pick-and-choose a "refrigerator" that suits my needs. As Whirlpool explained, a central cooling system could provide the right temperature and humidity level to connected bread and fruit baskets, wine chillers, herbariums, and specialized cooling boxes to easily keep meat and dairy fresh and concealed.

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When I began to go CES window shopping for kitchen connectivity, I expected to come home with a slide show of Stuff You Can Buy Today. Instead, I found vendors who are – for a change! – really considering what customers both need and want to buy. Personally, I'm far happier with that thoughtfulness in my shopping basket.

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