Autonomous cars. Artificially intelligent robots that become our personal assistants or companions. Contact lenses that turn your eyes into tiny computer screens. When people think about technology and how it might change our lives, the sky is the limit – or, if you can imagine flying cars and consumer space travel, even the sky is just the beginning.
It is easy to get swept away by the big-ticket pie-in-the-sky innovative ideas like those. But the majority of technological advancements sneak up on us. And the best technology is that which blends so seamlessly into our lives that we stop considering it “tech” at all and simply consider it an essential part of our daily lives.
One of the best places to find this type of tech: the kitchen.
Consider the refrigerator. Most people take it for granted that we have tiny sealed closets where we can keep things colder and fresher longer, but when it was first invented, it was a high-tech piece of equipment. Ditto to the toaster, or the oven, or the microwave.
So what is next? What is the next toaster or piece of tech we will one day see tucked away in the corner of every kitchen?
Justin Berger of the GE-backed co-creation community and product development micro-factory FirstBuild doesn’t have an exact answer yet, but he believes that engineers, designers and tinkerers may be working on it right now. The kitchen, he says, is the perfect place for fostering innovation among the creative community.
Why? Because “it taps into people’s passions.”
As Berger puts it, “Nobody is passionate about dishwashers or laundry.”
For purists – those folks who see cooking as an art or an act of love best passed on through scribbled recipes on faded index cards from grandma – just the thought of more tech in the kitchen might feel like an affront to something sacred. But for everyone else, the possibilities are endless and often welcomed with open arms.
Berger and his coworker Taylor Dawson see a trend toward guided cooking. Things like a pan equipped with sensors that monitor when a salmon fillet is ready to be flipped, paired with a fun recipe app that dictates instructions.
“It’s about better food made easier,” explains Berger.
One specific area FirstBuild is focused on is cooktop technology.
Dawson explains, “We want to win the cooktop. Nobody has conquered the cooktop. Think about the oven. You need a level of precision for baking. You set it to 300 degrees. There is no precision on cooktops.”
A recipe might instruct someone to sauté veggies “for five minutes at medium-high heat.” That is fine and dandy if your stove dial mirrors that of the oven the recipe maker used. But too often it won’t. At best, this sort of inconsistency can lead to unnecessary stress, especially for people without much experience in the kitchen. At worst, it could mean undercooked food that might make someone sick.
If the guesswork of stovetop temperatures was removed, maybe people would opt for a guided-home-cooked meal instead of another order of “number three, large, with a Diet Coke” at the drive-thru. Leave the finesse and nuance to the folks in big chef hats and pretty white aprons. Cooking can be an art, but it could also just be a science or simple routine.
Connectivity is a big theme within the industry. Last week, GE Appliances announced it is introducing a line of voice-controlled products, including refrigerators, dishwashers, ovens, ranges and laundry. People with these connected appliances will be able to control them through their Amazon Echo by using commands like “Alexa, tell Geneva to preheat the oven to 350 degrees.”
It might seem like a vanity accessory to most people, but the practical applications are anything but. Technology like this helps people with disabilities or other mobility issues live easier. With a population that is increasingly aging, that’s an important design element to consider. And time and again companies have learned that when they design inclusively for people with disabilities, the end product is almost always better for the population as a whole.
(Want an example? Think of the elevator. It is a near necessity for people in a wheelchair, but not having to walk up 13 flights of stairs is a perk most have appreciated and taken advantage of.)
One such product FirstBuild created was an easy-load double oven whose top rack pulls out as you open the oven. It was designed to help people who have difficulties reaching into an oven, but is so convenient that it is being introduced to the mass market.
Technology is also bringing more advanced cooking techniques to everyday folks. Take sous vide, for example. This method, in which food is vacuum-sealed and placed in a temperature-controlled water bath to ensure even cooking, has been used in high-end restaurants for decades. Only in the past few years has the price point of sous vide cookers dipped low enough to be affordable to some home chefs.
FirstBuild’s Paragon Induction Cooktop, which provides consumers with the equipment to sous vide at home, has an MSRP of $299.
Other appliances once relegated to restaurants may follow suit, especially if FirstBuild has its way.
Engineers there are working on a pizza oven that can replicate the wood- or coal-fired pies of commercial pizzerias in an indoor home setting. The oven, which falls under the GE luxury brand Monogram, will fit inside a standard wall-oven kitchen cavity, replacing the need for big and bulky outdoor brick ovens.
What else might be possible?
FirstBuild hopes to find out this weekend, September 24-25. They are hosting a hackathon titled “The Future of Cooking.” Approximately 250 to 300 people from Louisville and afar will work across the weekend to design, build, code and hack the next generation of cooking devices.
“We’ll see what they come up with,” says Berger.
Who knows, it might just wind up being the next big thing. VT
For more information, visit firstbuild.com
Photos by Crystal Ludwick
The connected home of the future won’t just have a fancy kitchen. It will also have a fancy mailbox.
Traditional mailboxes haven’t been updated in more than a century, but one local entrepreneur is working on doing just that. He is Kela Ivonye, the founder off Mailhaven, a smart mailbox that protects your packages and alerts you when they arrive.
Here is how it works: The person delivering a package uses a barcode or security code to open the mailbox, then places the delivery inside. That delivery is then protected from the elements, as well as from thieves, until the intended receiver returns home. With Mailhaven, customers would no longer have to worry about coming home to a sticker on their door that reads, “Sorry we missed you!”
Each year, there are more than a billion missed deliveries. That costs delivery companies like UPS and FedEx money, and it causes headaches for people who expect their newly purchased products now rather than later. It even has a trickle-down affect to the online retailers because missed delivery dates sour the purchasing experience and turn people off to buying online.
Last month, Ivonye was named one of six recipients of a Vogt Awards, which are given to local startups with the potential to scale up and increase economic activity within the city and region. As a winner, Ivonye receives $25,000 and 12 weeks of mentorship focused on building his business.
Delivery companies already assign barcodes to every package in their system for tracking purposes, so weaving something like Mailhaven into the mix isn’t difficult. It just requires the buy-in, says Ivonye.
He is currently working with retailers to get them to embrace the concept. Meanwhile, the Mailhaven box itself is currently on its third prototype. Mailhaven expects to have a product out for select consumers to begin testing sometime this year.
For more information, visit mailhaven.com.