How GE Plans To Change BBQ By Using Data At SXSW

Data visualization! Food science! Brainwave scanners! Ribs!

How GE Plans To Change BBQ By Using Data At SXSW
[Photos: courtesy of GE]

SXSW means a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing it means to just about everybody is BBQ. (Even vegans can dig in to at food trailers in Austin.) Other standbys: Relentlessly packed day parties, brand activations, Questlove. All of those things are at the center of GE’s BBQ Research Center, running from 1 to 6 p.m. March 14 through 16, near the Austin Convention Center.


A “BBQ Research Center” sponsored by GE is among the more SXSW-y ideas ever proposed, and Sam Olstein, the company’s director of innovation, is very comfortable with that.

“R&D means a ton to GE. We invest a lot annually into inventing new materials and engineering different scientific breakthroughs,” Olstein explains. “And as we were thinking about how to bring that to life and what we could bring to South-By, we were thinking about the world of food science, and BBQ as this canvas and lens, so to speak, to talk about our narrative and our efforts in global R&D.”

Visitors to the BBQ Research Center will be greeted by the “Brilliant Super-Smoker,” a piece of technology that GE has fabricated from scratch by adding a variety of different sensors and readouts that can visualize various metrics and data that it tracks using GE’s Predix software–a platform for predictive maintenance the company created for the Industrial Internet. GE Scientist Lynn DeRose, serving as the “pit scientist,” will operate the smoker and run experiments throughout the course of three days–playing with heat sources, types of wood, cook times, and more.

Beyond the headliner of the super-smoker, there’ll also be a DIY BBQ sauce workshop, in which visitors use food science to improve the flavor profiles of store-bought sauce, walking away with a test tube vial of their own creation; and an ice cream installation, where people will be able to make their own ice cream with liquid nitrogen. (Sadly, the food science behind pecan pie will go unexplored at this year’s festival.) Finally, to show off GE’s interest in neuroscience, there’ll be an area where people can eat BBQ while hooked up to a brainwave scanner–surely an Instagram opportunity if there ever was one–to see what happens in their brains while they eat sweet, savory, and spicy BBQ.

If all of this sounds kind of silly–and how could the image of someone eating brisket while their brainwaves are being scanned sound anything but silly?–Olstein is nonetheless very serious about the implications of the BBQ Research Center.

“One of the theories that we are trying to test out is, ‘What happens when you engineer a super-smoker that has a layer of intelligence on top?’ That can understand: ‘What is the optimal amount of moisture that you want in a piece of meat? When that piece of meat comes out of the super-smoker, what is the optimal resting period for that piece of meat?’” Olstein says. “So there are all these hypotheses and theories that we’re going to try to unlock. And it’s stuff that, as we’ve been going down this journey, a lot of pit masters in Texas and people in the world of BBQ have always wondered about. We’re going to try to find out over three days if science and data can really elevate the world of BBQ.”


To gauge the answers to those questions, GE has recruited a panel of experts: celebrity chef Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ, BBQ enthusiast Questlove, Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn, Modernist Cuisine’s Scott Heimendinger, and more. (Many of them will also be participating in “Cue-Note” sessions–groan–to lead “thought-provoking conversations about the world of BBQ science,” as Olstein describes it.)

These are interesting questions to explore, but Olstein is also mindful of the fact that BBQ has been around for a long time–and been pretty friggin’ amazing–without data visualization and food science and brainwave scanners involved. In other words, Olstein isn’t concerned about a John Henry story here where Aaron Franklin and other Texas pitmasters are hammering away while the smart-smoker plays the part of the steam drill.

“BBQ has been around for generations, and most pit masters and chefs, whether they do it as a hobby, and engineer their own super-smoker in their garage, or have a business around it–there is very much an art to their practice,” Olstein says. “There are recipes that have been handed down in their families around the right rub, and the right cut of meat, and the best source of heat. But even with all of that art, there’s an element of science that a lot of people have oft-wondered, and thought through–can we better understand what’s happening inside of the smoker as the source of heat is combusting and emitting different layers of pH from the smoke? How is it that we can achieve the best and most optimal smoke ring, that pink ring around the meat when you take it from the smoker and slice it through? There’s a very strong heritage and artistic feel that we absolutely are celebrating and embracing. We’re trying to pose questions and go along this journey with all of these very famous names and faces in the world of BBQ, and see if technology and the tools we have today can elevate their craft to a different level.”

Ultimately, though, while GE seems sincere in its commitment to exploring the burgeoning field of BBQ science, that’s not its only interest in its SXSW activation. So is this about proving that, if GE science and R&D can even improve something as simple and glorious as BBQ, there’s no part of the world that its resources can’t improve?

“I don’t think it’s quite that direct,” Olstein laughs, “But there is a parallel that we want to draw here, about injecting all of these innovations and all this technology into different industries. What happens when we’re able to embrace the world of advance manufacturing and 3D printing, and manufacture better parts for our customers in transportation and aviation? These are questions we pose to ourselves and try to answer every day around the world. And BBQ is just such a relatable and appetizing thing to try to wrap our heads around the questions we’re going to be asking in Austin, and that we ask day in and day out here.”

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club.