Along with the flying car, the robot-cleaning, automated meal-slinging kitchen has been a pop culture vision of a tomorrowland still stuck in the 1950’s. Today, as more aspects of our homes become connected and automated, the kitchen remains an elusive target for connected technologies. It’s chaotic, messy and complex — a difficult environment for innovation.
We recently took a trip to Seattle’s Smart Kitchen Summit to explore the future kitchen. In its second year, the event is a two-day gathering and startup showcase highlighting the intersection of food and technology. The event’s creator and curator, Michael Wolf, has become a leading expert in the field (and for those who like to geek-out on these things, he hosts a surprisingly entertaining podcast called the Smart Kitchen Show). The event itself had a nice balance between whirring gadgets and eager entrepreneurs from the showcase to well-facilitated panel discussions and conversations with industry executives and innovators. We went to the Summit to get a taste of what’s to come and we were delighted to see so many exciting possibilities but we also felt the event was lacking some conversation around how those possibilities could one day become real, how we were going to finally get to a fully connected kitchen.
A Focus on Food
Food tech and cooking innovation were the focus of the Summit. The main question Michael Wolf and many of the attendees are trying to answer seemed to be mostly related to cooking performance – “How can I leverage technology to cook delicious food quickly, consistently, and hassle-free?” Whether it’s countertop appliances, new connected cooking platforms or recipe apps, this was the problem to solve.
This represents a welcome shift in the evolution of the smart kitchen. Where previous initiatives, especially from major appliance manufacturers, seemed to focus on providing consumers with additional convenient features. It often felt like technology for technology’s sake. By focusing on cooking precision, at least a real problem is being addressed, although it’s just one of many for home cooks.
The startup showcase revealed some similar products with slightly different approaches. Take these three countertop ovens, for example: The June Oven is outfitted with sensors, including a camera, and a companion app that recognizes food and lets you know when it’s cooked. Tovala, another small oven, steams, bakes, broils, and convection heats, plus it can be used with a proprietary meal delivery service where meals can be scanned and cooked automatically without having to manually change any settings on the oven. The Anova Precision Oven is a countertop oven that has many of the features the others do, but also connects to Anova’s precision sous vide cooker. None of these ovens can cook a Thanksgiving turkey though, so it will be interesting if any of them makes it to an already crowded kitchen counter anytime soon.
Automation was a big theme. The best demonstration of this was the Hestan Cue Guided Cooking System, which syncs a sensor-enabled induction burner and pan with a mobile app. This enables precision cooking by stepping the user through recipes on the app while the burner and pan are in sync to automatically adjust the pan temperature along the way.
Maybe startups are gravitating to guided and connected cooking because that’s a much simpler point of entry. It takes a lot of know-how and infrastructure to manufacture a full size oven or range. They’re also trying to solve a problem that makes sense to their demographic — the young, busy, urban entrepreneur. For this population, making a gourmet meal with the ease of popping something in a microwave feels like a huge innovation.
The Missing Connection
In our own research we’ve conducted on the connected home, we learned that people are primarily concerned with product reliability, interoperability with other smart products, maintenance and safety (not terribly sexy stuff). Unfortunately, the Smart Kitchen Summit didn’t do much to address these.
Amazon, Google, and Apple likely hold the most promise to connect the home in a deeper way, and only Amazon presented at the summit. A presentation on Alexa and the Echo, while not directly about the kitchen, at least showed us a vision for unifying the user experience. After all, nobody wants four different apps for their kitchen gadgets and seven different apps to control their home, right? Sadly, Apple and Google were mostly absent from the conversation.
Improving the cooking experience is only one of several pain points for people in the kitchen. Shopping, food organizing, preparation, cleaning and maintenance are larger (yet less glamorous and tasty) hassles in everyday life. We didn’t see any connected refrigerators or dishwashers at the Summit. These appliances exist, and many were on display at CES. Without a focus on the holistic kitchen experience, we were left wondering what the opportunities might be to connect kitchen appliances with each other and to other devices in the home, and what potential customer experiences could look like.
The futuristic kitchen from sci-fi movies is no longer a complete fantasy. It’s an inevitability. Although the path forward isn’t completely clear and there will be many roadblocks, kitchen appliances — like home security systems — will be connected to the cloud, will have many automated features, and will be run off of software.
This means that major appliance manufacturers need to start thinking of themselves as software companies, at least partially.
One way to transform their business is by partnering with startups and technologists like those at the Smart Kitchen Summit, which has become a matchmaking opportunity for entrepreneurs and big brands. Last year, Vitamix met Perfect Drink PRO, makers of a smart scale and mobile app for making cocktails step-by-step. This year, Vitamix announced a new product in partnership with Perfect Drink that does the same for smoothies and soups. Startup Drop (another smart scale with a companion recipe app) announced their partnership with Bosch ovens to leverage their technology for yet one more guided cooking tool.
These types of partnerships will help to bring product innovation to larger manufacturers and to the space as a whole which is fantastic. Once manufacturers venture into connected products, they will quickly see the complexity that connectivity brings – solving one problem quickly leads to other potential problems to solve. Until we all start to think of the kitchen experience holistically, innovation will continue to feel like a handful of wet spaghetti thrown at the wall just to see what sticks. The Smart Kitchen Summit is a great way to get everyone interested in this space together to start discussing common problems and common opportunities which may get us closer to that holistic thinking.
It will be interesting to see how things shake out in the next few years and how new technologies will impact all of our kitchen experiences. For our part at Odopod, we’ll continue to think about how great design and technology can help people navigate an increasingly complex and connected world — in the kitchen and beyond. If we can help them become great cooks in the process, then bon appétit.
Matthew Meschery is a Strategy Director at Odopod. With a human-centered approach to product strategy and research design, he likes helping businesses and organizations solve problems big and small.
Photos provided by Smart Kitchen Summit.