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The Display Continuum

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Presumptuous Assumptions…April 2004

I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for the computer-controlled house or the internet-driven kitchen. Nevertheless, in spite of all the good wisdom that I have tried to offer over the years, the topic still seems to intrigue those looking for how to extend the use of personal computers, or for new uses for the latest high-tech products. What is especially interesting is that many of these efforts are based on the presumption that houses and kitchens will continue to be designed and lived in much as they are today, and just need to be more automated and/or more "interconnected.

I found the latest examples of this in the March 2004 issue of Popular Science magazine. The article is titled "The Souped-up Kitchen – The next decade will take you on many journeys, but one place you won’t go is hungry". Now, I fully believe that most of us with kitchens and homes won’t go hungry. It’s just that I am wondering if this is the way that we will do it. Here is a sampling of what is supposed to come into our lives.

• Voice commands that will allow a ceiling projector to show a recipe once we have selected it.
• An oven that will keep food cool until we give it the command to start cooking over a cell-phone as we are driving home from work.
• Other appliances will be interconnected to automatically coordinate yet other parts of the meal preparation.
• The refrigerator will have a built in camera and RFID tag sensor to remotely tell us what is contains.
• The trash compactor will have an RFID sensor to keep track of what is thrown away so that the next shopping list can be created beginning with these items.
• A robotic wet/dry vacuum cleaner will be docked in its own cabinet to come out and clean up spills and even the counter top – the article doesn’t say who will clean up the vacuum cleaner.
• The kitchen will sense who is present and modify the environment and items to be presented for consumption.

Haystack Rock

Well, I think you get the idea. More computer control, more automation and more gadgets that help you cook, shop, and keep track of all this stuff. And of course displays everywhere to show the recipes, to tell us the status of the inventory, and to provide access to the computer intelligence that will run all of these interconnected devices. However, there is one very basic assumption behind all of this. (There is also the secondary assumption that all of these interconnected gadgets will work as designed – a giant assumption that has no connection to current reality). However, in this column let’s focus on the primary assumption. Is it really a given that we will continue to have kitchens that are like the ones we have today? Let’s consider a few societal behaviors that may bring that assumption into question.

The very concept of family relationships is changing. More households depend on two incomes to maintain their lifestyles. The adults earning those incomes are less likely to keep the "normal" working hours that were the norm a few decades ago. If there are children in the family, they are likely to have their own busy schedules. The concept of regular mealtimes and the traditional roles of the husband as wage earner and the wife as the person who cooks and maintains the home is close to vanishing. All this creates a changing environment where the function of the kitchen no longer fits the assumptions on which the additional "features" listed above are based. Instead of making the conventional kitchen more efficient, perhaps the futurists should be thinking about how to deal with today’s reality where families are eating out more, where food is brought home at the last minute from a take-out facility, and where mostly-prepared salads or dinners are brought home from the grocery store for a quick final preparation. And where hurried meals may be taken as the busy schedules allow. None of this requires additional automation. In fact, it requires less from the kitchen than ever before.

There is another very basic and I believe fundamental flaw in the functioning of the futuristic kitchen as proposed by the technology-driven designers. And that is the concept of inventory control. The premise that somehow we can create shopping lists by tracking what goes in and out of the refrigerator and other storage locations is the highest level of wishful thinking that I can imagine. That turns out to be difficult even in the most disciplined of environments, such as in managing a factory assembly line. Retail establishments try to maintain control by point-of-sale tracking of each item that leaves the store and by carefully recording all incoming inventory -- and they still need to do periodic physical counts. In what kind of fantasy world can we expect a family with no desire and no inventory-control training to track the use of consumables – especially when most of those consumables are left in partly used quantities, and not even necessarily returned to their intended locations? How does one account for a partly eaten chocolate cake, or one-third of a head of lettuce? And how do we deal with the variations in what every family member might like to try next? Our desire for variety in our nourishment is not at all like the predictable environment of a product assembly line.

When we consider the changes that have happened in our work lives, along with the changes in how most families are responding to the activities of their growing children, we have to conclude that for most families the concept of the traditional mealtime has become a rare event. There is less predictability and less time available for preparation and for consumption. And, in addition, we must not forget to consider our demands for variety and novelty in our food choices. Given this reality, the proposed concept of a modern kitchen, where traditional recipes are shown on a projection display so that the "homemaker" can prepare a meal using ingredients that have been automatically tracked by RFID tags, feels like something that must exist in some other universe – a universe where culturally time has stood still while technology has taken giant leaps forward.

Perhaps, your home is ready for all of these technological enhancements, but at our house the conventional kitchen with a gas range, a conventional refrigerator, and yes, a microwave, seems to be meeting our needs just fine. I really can’t imagine adding more complexity to something that seems to be working quite well. Can you? Please let me know your thoughts by return e-mail directly from this web-site, by telephone at 425-898-9117, or by fax at 425-898-1727.