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High-Tech Avoids the Mess in Voice-Activated Future Kitchen

High-Tech Avoids the Mess in Voice-Activated Future Kitchen

Show-goers at CES this week may be able to catch a glimpse of what one industry group envisions for the future of the home kitchen. Citing the practical shortcomings of many current kitchen technologies, the so-called Magic Kitchen will use gesture-based technologies, projectors and voice commands to display information, control tasks and personalize functions.

A core group of companies banded together in the Magic Kitchen Project will debut computer-embedded kitchen appliances Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show as a forerunner of technology consumers may be able to purchase by year's end.

The so-called Magic Kitchen displays images on surfaces through mounted projectors.
The so-called Magic Kitchen displays images on surfaces through mounted projectors.
(click image to enlarge)

The Magic Kitchen display is the result of four years of collaborative research by Whirlpool, Texas Instruments, Verizon, Tyco Electronics, Sensory and several other members of Continental Automated Buildings Association's (CABA) Connected Home Research Council. The group, formerly known as the "Internet Home Alliance," developed the first phase of the project.

The Magic Kitchen display showcases several concepts, including clutter-free technologies that allow users to control content using voice and gesture commands.

"The kitchen is the nerve center of the entire house. Home builders need to wire the kitchen so data flows seamlessly. The issue is that the kitchen countertop is unrealistic for a PC," Debasish (Ron) Nag, director of business development at Texas Instruments, told TechNewsWorld.

Sensitive Choices

Traditional computing solutions accepted elsewhere in the house are not so cooking-friendly in the kitchen, according to research the group conducted.

"We found that consumers are not happy with having their laptops on the counter top. It's too risky that the laptop will fall or liquid will spill on the keys. So the ability to project displays onto flat surfaces is a better solution," Carol Priefert, senior manager of global consumer insights and technology for the global product organization at Whirlpool, told TechNewsWorld.

What people do in their kitchens and on their couches is different, she said, and each room has its own computing environment.

For example, laptops in the living room are used for work or supplementing the entertainment system; however, they're awkward and less convenient for kitchen-based chores. The idea is to provide what consumers say they want in their kitchens that is not now available, said Priefert.

New Kitchen Design

Kitchens have more than one common screen area, just as they have more than one work zone. Work zones gravitate around the center island, the stove area and the refrigerator, she said.

Those zones are least user-friendly when it comes to setting up computing displays with traditional hardware. How can kitchen appliance makers use these existing surfaces? The solution is to use the counter top to receive images from a projector, Nag said.

The kinds of information fed to the projector pattern what family members already have in the kitchen from old-fashioned methods. Instead, they will have LED lights under the cabinets and from the ceiling beaming down.

"The concept involves people using computers instead of recipe books, index cards and Post-It notes that litter refrigerator doors," said Nag.

No Standards

The features embedded into the first phase of the Magic Kitchen will lay a foundation for the overall concept of the connected home.

Past Connected Home Research Council pilots include Laundry Time, which tested the laundry room of the future; and Mealtime, which tested a variety of high-tech, meal-preparation technologies. However, the kitchen appliances could potentially serve as a proving ground.

The display at CES makes it clear that the Magic Kitchen is futuristic concept, but one that's nonetheless feasible. What makes this particular look into the kitchen of the future different from others is that all the functionality in the kitchen is within reach. Every concept in the kitchen is based on affordable technologies that exist currently in labs around the world but haven't yet been widely commercialized, noted Nag.

"It's not about setting standards. The vendors are pushing the concept of the connected home today. No industry standards yet exist," said Priefert.

What to Expect

Texas Instruments (TI) embedded mini computers that output to digital light projectors under cabinets, on appliance doors and on counter tops. A ceiling-mounted product contains an array of small projectors, LED heating lamps and an Internet connection. The device is a rectangular box that closely resembles a Black and Decker appliance affixed under a cabinet or a range hood, Nag explained.

The Magic Kitchen concept displays different sets of information depending on the time of day.
The Magic Kitchen concept displays different sets of information depending on the time of day.
(click image to enlarge)

Consumers can configure the system to display information according to their needs. These displays can be directed onto cooking surfaces, tables or counter tops.

"But keyboards and mice are not natural interfaces. People use hand gestures and voice. So our challenge was, could TI work with Whirlpool and others to do this?" Nag said.

As far as the Magic Kitchen assembled for this week's CES 2010 show, the answer is yes. A number of kitchen appliances offer working proof that the concept is possible.

Cool Stuff

One cool feature the kitchen touts is the ability for users to place a mobile device such as a cellphone on the counter in a bowl-shaped receptacle that functions as a connection zone. A hidden kitchen computer reads the user's individual food preferences and menu restrictions.

Other way-out stuff lets consumers use hands-free appliance controls to juggle multiple tasks in the kitchen. For example, someone standing near the sink could use the Wii-like sensor bar to control the burner height of an about-to-boil-over pot. Another task could involve answering the phone while working on food preparation in the kitchen without having to scramble to wash and dry your hands.

The images consumers choose to project onto surfaces could be anything from table-settings to informational labels for wine tasting parties to step-by-step instructions for homework or crafts. A counter-top device provides comprehensive product information for any bar-coded product, minimizing the risk of contamination or illness.

More to Come

After this first phase, the participating companies will conduct focus groups to learn more about what consumers think about the concept. Based on the results of the focus groups, the CABA Connected Home Research Council will explore conducting a multi-month, real-world test of the concept in three to five homes.

"Our hope with The Magic Kitchen is to inspire developers worldwide to commercialize these available technologies and bring them to market. This collaborative research shows that demand for these kitchen applications is strong and growing," said Todd Mozer, CEO of Sensory.

Subsequent phases will include a variety of cloud computing applications, advanced speech recognition grammars, 3-D imaging and gesturing technology. A myriad of front projection devices and sensors would enable the kitchen computer to recognize individual family members when they walk into the kitchen.

Meet George Jetson

This would allow family members to access their personal content, such as calendar entries, news and email, simply by entering the kitchen. For example, the system could greet a family member with: "Good morning. Your coffee is ready, and you have a dentist appointment at 9 A.M. Would you like cream and sugar with your coffee?"

This future vision will be affordable for mainstream consumers in a three-step pricing process, according to Nag. It normally takes white goods manufacturers 18 to 24 months to develop new product lines.

"We can do it in 12 to 16 months, depending on the sense of urgency," he added.

The marketing goal is to offer the technology at an acceptable price point. The first generation units will probably sell for $499. That price will drop to $299 and eventually drop to the consumer sweet spot of $199, Nag predicted.


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