Mealtime Pilot Program Tests 'Kitchen of the Future'

Mealtime Pilot Program Tests 'Kitchen of the Future'

By Janice Anne Costa

Now, the concept of automation and connectivity in the kitchen is far more science than fiction these days, and the proof of that was premiered at this year's K/BIS in Orlando, when the Internet Home Alliance showcased its "Kitchen of the Future."

Currently, a pilot program is underway in the Boston area to test this kitchen concept in actual homes, allowing consumers to get a taste of how modern technology can streamline and simplify their lives.

Likewise, it will allow kitchen product manufacturers to find out what kinds of technology solutions consumers want most in the kitchen, and how they actually use technology in their day-to-day lives information that can help them to not only improve their own products, but to also engage in partnering opportunities that will allow for the creation of multi-faceted design and technology solutions.

Making A Connection
Developed by the Internet Home Alliance, a non-profit network of companies dedicated to advancing home technology, the Kitchen of the Future project is a unique cross-industry collaboration that utilizes true connectivity, according to Tim Woods, v.p./ecosystems development for the Alliance. "This is the most ambitious test of networked kitchen-based appliances and devices ever conducted!" Woods enthuses.

The kitchen integrates a host of high-tech products from such member companies as Whirlpool Corp., Sears, iCEBOX LLC, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. The idea of connectivity is played out with each of the products working in tandem with the others to create a "smart" kitchen that not only simplifies food shopping, meal planning and cooking, but even provides remote control over a multitude of kitchen functions.

According to Woods, the Alliance was formed some 2-1/2 years ago when "several companies got together feeling there was something to this connectivity thing, and they wanted to know how it was going to impact their businesses. First, they wanted to understand the opportunities behind connectivity and broadband They did a needs assessment study to identify what kind of help families are looking for with entertainment, with work, with family Then we [examined the existing technology we had that could be used to] provide solutions."

What consumers wanted most, it was determined, was "to have a device or devices that worked in concert together to deliver a meal when and where you wanted it, and [to] have control over [it] outside of your home," Woods notes. "We then had to recruit for the solution, finding companies who were interested in the solution, and who were developing products that were suited for it."

Manufacturers like Whirlpool, with its Polara range and Conquest side-by-side refrigerator and Web tablet, and iCEBOX, with its Web-enabled entertainment/command center, were a natural fit, since they already had products on the market that tied into these solutions. It was then merely a matter of determining how to interface these products in such a way so as to create a kitchen that would truly benefit real-life users.

Working Kitchens
The next step was to create a pilot program to show users how well the kitchen worked in real-time applications. Twenty families in the Boston area were selected for the "Mealtime Pilot," with an emphasis on time-crunched families not averse to new technology.

According to Woods, consumers participating in the pilot program should be able to "manage kitchen and meal preparation tasks from the oven, Web-enabled refrigerator tablet, Web-based entertainment/ command center and wireless-application-protocol cell phone."

This means they can:

  • Put a dish in the oven before going to bed and program the oven to refrigerate, cook and cool the dish for a set mealtime the next day.
  • Adjust (if they're running late) or cancel (if the family's plans change) the oven function from their cell phones, mobile tablets or Web-enabled entertainment/command centers.
  • Receive text messages on their cell phones from the oven, confirming that evening's cooking instructions.
  • Call their oven from their cell phones to see if they forgot to turn off the oven and turn it off from their cell phones.
  • Surf the Internet for recipes and coupons, create shopping lists and print those items or e-mail them to an on-line grocer for home delivery of groceries.

Lessons Learned
A lot of the project's value is that it provides consumer input based on consumers' real-time experiences, Woods believes. "We decided we were going to do pilots, so we wanted to put these things in real people's homes and have them interact with them and see if they liked it and what they used it for," he says.

"In the real world, when companies test these products, they don't usually pilot them, putting these products in other people's homes and seeing how the products interact and work together in concert," Woods continues.

"What we learn from the Mealtime Pilot program will drive much of what we do in terms of future product development," notes Whirlpool Corp. V.P./Corporate Technology and Electronics Henry Marcy V. "When it comes to home technology products and services, consumers are going to buy solutions, so collaborative testing, like the Mealtime Pilot, is becoming one of the most critical parts of today's consumer research equation."

Woods believes that the findings will help manufacturers create more effective technology solutions, and that this may even lead to partnerships between companies that will allow for "better technology solutions for everyone."