The Secret to I of E in the Kitchen? Invisibility
What could be simpler than opening the fridge and grabbing yourself a snack? That’s the challenge for designers and engineers who are looking to bring the Internet of Everything into the kitchen. Eating food is based largely on sensations of hunger, an age-old instinct which is pretty difficult to ignore. As for preparing food, people either enjoy it or they hate it. Either way, when preparing to integrate a kitchen into the Internet of Everything sphere it is important to realize that the kitchen is an area where emotions rule, not facts.
People go to the kitchen when they are hungry. They meet in the kitchen during parties. Many take pride in cooking from recipes handed down through the generations. A kitchen is a hearth; it is a place for being human, and as such the often highly practical, yet overly logical inventions that have been designed for the kitchen over the decades face steep opposition from the simple fact that if it needs to be thought about, that’s one step too many.
The fundamental guideline for an efficient kitchen scenario is ease of use. A refrigerator is easy to use: it keeps things cold. A stove is easy to use: it makes things hot. A tap delivers drinkable water. All of these things are invisible. They just happen. And it is only when the power goes out, or when you go camping, that the marvel of these old-school, non-intelligent devices once again proves their worth.
As such, as the Internet of Everything creeps further and further into our homes, its success will be based on a single word: invisibility. For a device to work well, meaning that the interaction between the device and its human counterpart works well, it must offer as invisible a process as possible.
Some examples of this are already starting to emerge with the development of smart smoke alarms, such as that offered by Nest. Once it has passed its current teething pains it will offer a far more intelligent approach to home awareness and safety. Similarly, devices such as Canary stand to usher in a new generation of home security, using the power of a personal Wi-Fi and a smartphone app to keep tabs on the status of your house while you are not in it.
So what could be improved in a kitchen, in such an invisible way as to make life easier without adding extra steps?
Cooking will always involve manual effort, but hands-free cookbooks, which can scroll or zoom with a wave of the hand are already in use on iPads and Google Glass. Innovative new kitchen scales such as the Orange Chef Prep Pad offer a significantly more powerful way to understand nutrition and to eat better, by assessing servings by weight.
But what about the fridge? How could that be improved? Cynics will say the best way to assess what your fridge contains is by opening the door and looking inside, which makes sense if you remember to do this. But how many of us have had to add extra minutes to the commute to stop and pick up some milk on the way home? It happens. A fridge that could scan bar codes, and assess the remaining amount of milk by weight, using the same weighing techniques that self-checkouts use, might be able to send an alert more promptly, or better yet, add “milk” to your online grocery list. Yes, this would require that the milk be placed in a specific location in the fridge. So why not incorporate shelves that not only factor in a weighing scale but also light up, ensuring that even the youngest family members are guided to place the milk in the most energy efficient location of the fridge, which happens to be the lower level.
Scanning items before placing them in the fridge or even onto lighted panels in your cupboards might seem to add extra effort to your life, but less so if there are tangible financial savings to be made, through fewer trips to the grocery store, less spoiled food, and fewer redundant purchases.
Food preparation is generally haphazard and reactive. The success factor of the Internet of Everything in the kitchen will be to turn our relationship with food into a proactive experience, whose benefits extend into health, as well as budget.
How often has a pot boiled over on the stove in your house? Why? Because the speed at which liquids reach a boil depends on a great number of influences, including the setting of the element itself, the size of the pot, the contents of the pot and even the altitude of your house. Smart crock pots already exist, so why not a pot that can sound an alarm 2 minutes before a boil-over? It exists. What about a range that could sense the presence of small children and warn them away?
(Image Source: IKEA)
Invisibility is the key. A kitchen must be a place where no extra work stands between a human and their food. Otherwise instinct takes over, and the device becomes a failure.
But invisibility has a second role to play here, in terms of the reduction of items needed to make a kitchen successful. Smart, energy efficient fridges need not be as large as their predecessors, yet they could incorporate a number of other appliances, including security camera screens, hands-free cookbook/recipe files, an entertainment system and a phone. These have been tried before, but as any Newton owner knows, timing is everything (a Newton, kids, was a smartphone that was neither smart, nor a phone, but it was an essential link in the evolution of texting).
Other multipurpose intelligent devices such as the Gkilo a combination kitchen scale and clock, show great promise in returning to the kitchen that one thing that is always in short supply: counter space. Consequently a kitchen that embraces the Internet of Everything will require fewer physical tools and less space to get the job of cooking done.
Food preparation has been a fact of life since the dawn of mankind, and with any great change comes a flurry of reactionism. “We don’t need that,” or “what’s wrong with the old way of doing things?” or “why do you need a computer to turn off a light?” But for each of these perfectly human responses, it is equally easy to point to the comfort that comes from being able to lock the front door of the house remotely, or to answer the agonizing question, “did I leave the stove on?”
As your house becomes a more intelligent part of the globally connected Internet, the benefits of new technology will once again eclipse the fear of change. For those who still doubt, perhaps they can ask the iceman next time he passes by.
By Steve Prentice