Google's Nest Is Great, But Is Your Kitchen Now The Smartest Room In The House?

Odds are, next time you throw a party, the hottest action will be in your kitchen. (Isn't it always?) Soon, a slew of connected devices will leave your guests agog.

Room by room and appliance by appliance, homes are coming online. Front doors have Bluetooth locks and cameras, bedrooms have a suite of gadgets that promise to wake you up gently in an optimal sleep cycle, and living rooms have smart TVs, customizable lighting, and intelligent thermostats like the recent Google acquisition, Nest. But of all the rooms in the house, (and one, ironically, where many of us spend most of our time), one has lagged behind: the kitchen. The closest thing to a mainstream smart kitchen gadget is probably Quirky’s Egg Minder, an egg tray that tells you how many eggs it has. Or perhaps a fork that vibrates when you eat fast.

At first blush, the kitchen’s relative tardiness in joining the internet of things is a little perplexing. Historically the kitchen has been a part of the house that's boiled over with labor-saving innovation, from dishwashers to self-lighting stoves to slow cookers. Yet not much has changed in 50 years. Of course, its history of automation may be why connected devices have been slow to catch on there: short of a robot butler, it’s hard to imagine much more labor being saved.

But 2014 appears to be the year companies are determined to try. At CES this year, major appliance manufacturers like LG, Whirlpool, and GE unveiled their visions of a fully connected kitchen. LG’s Home Chat allows you to send SMS messages to your LG appliances, telling your refrigerator, for instance, to go in power save mode or your oven to start pre-heating. Remote oven operation was a theme: GE, Davor, and others had remotely controlled ovens. Belkin debuted a WeMo crock-pot that lets you adjust temperature and turn it off and on using a smartphone app.

Other companies are trying to imbue refrigerators with various forms of intelligence. The LCD screen on Samsung’s model lets you make phone calls and watch TV, the idea being that if you’re watching something in the living room you can continue to watch it when you walk to the kitchen for a beer. One of the most useful-seeming features in a fridge comes from Seimens, whose concept model shown at the IFA consumer electronic show in Berlin snaps a photo of the fridge’s contents whenever you open the door, allowing you to check what food you already have before you stop off at the store on your way home from work. It’s like a fridge-wide version of Quirky’s Egg Minder, and Quirky is working on a similar product called the Insider, which would provide the same feature in a less cutting-edge fridge

Quirky’s Egg Minder

Quirky’s approach, of adding new functions piecemeal to old devices rather than reinventing them wholesale, may be the way forward for smart kitchens.

Alex Hawkinson, the founder and CEO of SmartThings, which makes a hub that works as a platform for connected devices, imagines a collection of sensor triggers that could help automate certain elements of the kitchen, like lights and radios. Connected appliances haven’t gone mainstream, he says, because they’re big, expensive, have long life-cycles, and often offer a minimal increase in convenience in exchange for a daunting level of complexity. Instead he sees a kitchen full of traditional appliances rigged with sensors. Your SmartThings hub could detect that you’ve woken up, either through a motion sensor outside your bedroom or a biometric wristband like the Jawbone Up, and turn on the lights in your kitchen and activate the outlet to which your coffee pot is connected, starting the coffee brewing if you had the foresight to put the grinds in the night before. When you enter the kitchen, motion sensors could trigger a Sonos speaker to give you a weather report and play the news. When you leave for work, the home senses that you are gone and shuts everything down. Big appliances like refrigerators will stay largely the same, he says, but they might have sensors that do things like alert you when the door is open or the stove is left on.

Another company, The Orange Chef, is taking a very different approach to smart devices in the kitchen. Rather than automate, they’re trying to bring data transparency to cooking, much like fitness trackers did for biometrics. Google, with its historical interest in data and its recent $3.2 billion expression of interest in smart homes, was one of Orange Chef’s lead investors in its $1.2 million round of seed funding.

The Orange Chef started in 2011 not with a device but with an iPad sleeve. After watching his wife constantly washing her hands before referring to her iPad for a recipe, founder Santiago Merea, a behavioral economist by training, designed a waterproof, washable, sticky-sealed sleeve. Next came a cutting board with an iPad stand. Both were hits and quickly went from online-only retail to shelves at Target and Sur La Table.

“For us the iPad is quite possibly the greatest sous chef ever and it shouldn’t be off to the side,” says Michael Tankenoff, head of marketing for Orange Chef. It is also the hub in the ecosystem of smart appliances Orange Chef hopes to build. In preparation for the leap from cutting board maker to gadget designer, Orange Chef recently relocated from Minneapolis to San Francisco and is in the process of staffing up from 10 to 25.

Orange Chef’s ecosystem is the Prep Pad, an iPad-linked food scale.

The first smart gadget in Orange Chef’s ecosystem is the Prep Pad, an iPad-linked food scale that will be sold exclusively at Williams Sonoma, along with Orange Chef’s other products. The Prep Pad is a food scale but it doesn’t show you weight. “The weight’s not important,” says Tankenoff. “It tells you what’s behind the food.” After entering the type of food into your iPad, either through text, voice, or by scanning supermarket codes, the Prep Pad breaks down each ingredient into its component parts—protein, carbohydrates, fat, calcium, vitamins, etc. The meal’s nutritional value is compared to the USDA’s recommended levels of nutrients, or to a personalized diet, displayed as two pastel-colored rings nested inside each other. The closer your meal’s nutritional value gets to the USDA’s ideal, the closer the rings get. You can slice the data multiple ways. For example, you could select carbohydrates and see how many are coming from each ingredient in a meal. “It gives you nutritional transparency into everything you’re eating,” says Tankenoff, who sees it appealing to health-conscious gourmands.

Whether there are enough tech-savvy cooks out there eager to quantify their meals is unclear, but the past success of programs like Weight Watchers and the trouble they’ve run into since the emergence of fitness trackers indicates there could be. And if there is, it’s easy to see how the data they produce would be valuable to advertisers, health professionals, retailers, and others. (It’s also easy to see how the scale could be a problem for people struggling with eating disorders, a group for whom activity monitors have been a double-edged sword.)

What’s most interesting about the company, though, is its approach to the smart kitchen. Tankenoff says their vision of the future kitchen is not the Jetson’s vision of full automation. "Cooking is fun, it’s a challenge, it’s a romantic activity,” says Tankenoff. “When you automate cooking you take the fun out of it.” Instead, Tankenoff says Orange Chef wants to “empower” people to experiment in the kitchen by giving them a new level of data about what they’re eating. And if they can give data collection a foothold in the kitchen, it makes sense that Google would be intrigued.

[Images courtesy of Orange Chef Co.]

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