LAS VEGAS— As technology continues to evolve, kitchen designers may be preparing to add Jetsons-style electronic gadgetry into their next floorplan. After all, what client couldn’t use a mobile command center in their refrigerator?
However, a recent study indicates that the main component of future kitchen designs may not necessarily be “Rosie the Robot.” Rather, it will likely revolve around a very simple notion: Create a flexible, user-friendly environment that accommodates the current needs of the homeowner.
This was one of the main revelations of the Digital Kitchen Study, a survey conducted by the Internet Home Alliance designed to shed light on how consumer electronics and technology contribute to family life in the kitchen, currently and in the near future.
The Web-based survey was conducted among 602 homeowners who identified themselves as participants in choosing both kitchen appliances and consumer electronics for their homes.
Tim Woods, v.p./ecosystem development for the Ottawa, Canada-based Internet Home Alliance Research Council at the Continential Automated Buildings Association (CABA), explains: “We wanted to look at the kitchen environment in total and find out what people like, what they dislike, what they want to do, who’s making these decisions – and who’s not.”
The results reinforced the notion that the kitchen still functions as the nerve center of the house while it also revealed that families also do much more than cook and eat there.
“Ultimately, I think it is more about how the kitchen is organized,” Woods says. “It turns out that people will be happy with their kitchen if it’s configured in the way they need it to be configured.”
But, he quickly warns: “We need to create a realistic execution based on current needs.”
To that end, the physical manifestation of the design was featured at last month’s Kitchen/Bath Industry Show (K/BIS) as the Ideal Digital Kitchen.
The kitchen – suitable for both small and large floorplans – features a variety of digitized gadgets, including a calendar, a recipe projection system and a universal charging station, among others.
Woods notes: “The wonderful thing about consumers is that you can hand them a piece of technology and they will tell you by their actions how valuable that piece of technology is. They interpret it for us so beautifully that it is our fault if we’re not watching.”
Participating members of the Digital Kitchen Study included Whirlpool, Bell Canada, Cisco Systems, Direct Energy and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), among others.
The survey results indicate that respondents prefer gadgetry that streamlines their daily activities.
The most popular concepts requested by respondents facilitate cooking, control of home systems and family scheduling, the survey reveals. Four main activities were found to commonly take place in the majority of North American kitchens: cooking for enjoyment; talking on the phone; using the kitchen to entertain friends, and also utilizing the space as a message center.
The results also indicate that families that include children utilize the kitchen in ways that differ from homes without children present. More often in families with children, the kitchen will serve as the center for schedule planning (52% versus 31% in homes with no children), arts and crafts (44% versus 19%), homework (48% versus 7%), and work assignments (27% versus 15%).
To address the needs of both segments of the population, the technology being integrated and developed must be versatile, functional and, in some ways, invisible.
Woods offers: “We’re seeing this natural evolution to things becoming digitized, like the calendar. Ultimately, technology is about the solution and not about the technology itself.”
Counter space and room for storage were significantly important design issues for many surveyed, Woods notes. “Those are the constant wants and needs for consumers,” he continues.
Indeed, nearly half (47%) of respondents desired more counter space – especially in smaller-sized kitchens (63%).
He adds: “We thought a desk or workstation would be a popular addition but, in fact, most home-owners told us that a computer on a counter worked just as well.”
This notion is supported by returns from the survey, which indicated that a mere one in five respondents has a desk/workstation. In addition, a large majority (82%) of those surveyed indicated that they had no interest in creating a separate space to do work assignments in the kitchen, though they did suggest that a more innovative kitchen design that freed up counter space for other uses would be helpful.
Woods explains: “It’s really about putting together a kitchen that gives you the counter space for a great working environment, but also becomes a good social environment for the family.”
Down to the Wire(less)
Broadband Internet connections – specifically wireless technology – is a main feature of the Ideal Digital Kitchen.
Consumers surveyed reported the desire for a wireless network in their home so they can have wireless Internet access in all rooms, including the kitchen.
“The reality is, in a dual-income, American household with children, people hit the door from school and work and disperse into different rooms,” says Woods.
He says that a broadband connection in the kitchen has the potential to change that tendency. “Broadband in the kitchen allows the family to stay in one room,” through the integration of devices that help them plan their daily activities, finish up schoolwork and make meal preparation more streamlined, so the focus is on togetherness, not tasks,” he says.
Based on the survey, there were six specific concepts incorporated into the Ideal Digital Kitchen display at K/BIS, including a digital calendar; recipe projection that would allow users to look up recipes on the Internet, energy usage monitoring and control, a universal charging station, wireless Internet access and a home control station.
Indeed, the survey found that the primary kitchen user is also the primary schedule keeper and, accordingly, a digital calendar was the most preferred of the 22 concepts tested. Specifically, Woods relates, respondents wanted a calendar on a large screen that allows them to add appointments and post notes that everyone in the household can see and access, whether from the kitchen or from their own computers on the network.
“We have seen research that goes back years that tells us the family is looking for a unified family calendar in the kitchen. That has been the ‘Holy Grail,’ ” he says.
The ability to monitor energy usage by area of the home was another popular concept, which reflects growing concern worldwide over wasted energy’s effect on the global environment, according to alliance officials.
Energy concerns aside, respondents also wanted the ability to charge up to three cell phones or PDAs simultaneously. A universal charging station in the kitchen would enable homeowners to charge multiple cell phones in the place where phones and chargers are often stashed.
A home control station combines energy management (HVAC control) with security via Web camera feeds of the front steps and activity in the backyard. Specifically, respondents requested a screen where they can view the temperature outside, adjust the thermostat on a touchpad and view live video of both the front and back of their house. This concept was equally appealing to households with or without children.
Although Woods reported that practicality and function won out over entertainment with survey respondents, there were two entertainment items heavily requested – TV and wireless Internet – that could also be a strong indicator of the market at large.
A Tech Odyssey
According to Woods, the key to future kitchen designs is not just flexibility, but feasibility.
“Everything is an evolution,” he says. “One thing we in the tech industry have been guilty of is shoving the future down people’s throats. Consumers took technology and have evolved it into the spaces that make sense – such as the living room, home office and the kitchen.”
Prognosticating trend shifts, especially when it comes to kitchen design, is not without its challenges, he adds.
“The thing about predicting the future is that, even when you do that, sometimes consumers can’t react because they’ve never been exposed to [that product or concept] before,” he says. “There will be a day when products talk and connect to each other – simply because it will make sense. We will get to that point, but it will be an evolution and it will happen naturally.”