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Tomorrow's Kitchen, Yesterday's Recipe

MIT designers serve up futuristic ideas inspired by the past. Some are handy, others half-baked.

October 19, 2000|DAVID COLKER |

Ted Selker cooks up kitchens of the future.

A talking oven mitt.

A knife that measures bacteria.

A spatula that knows the difference between folding and mixing.

Handy gadgets--maybe, someday--but the futuristic kitchen Selker envisions lies somewhere between "The Jetsons" and a Norman Rockwell painting, an almost retro hearth where technology unites families and friends.

"This is not the kind of kitchen of the future project where you will find a lot of robots running around," says Selker, who oversees the Counter Intelligence project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famed Media Laboratory. Selker says the key to the future lies in the past.

"The kitchen was the hearth of the house, the first room to get plumbing," he says. "It was the room that was warm, the gathering place. But somehow we have moved away from that. Families don't have meals together, meals are eaten outside the home or from takeout. The kitchen becomes a showplace instead of a hearth."

Selker, who talks as passionately about cooking as he does technology, and his crew of engineers, programmers and designers look for ways the kitchen might play a more central role in household life.

"The point is much bigger than just technological advances," says Selker, who invented the pointer in IBM laptops. "We're looking at how the kitchen fits into the future, or even if it has a role at all."

Finding an increased role for the household kitchen would buck current trends. Selker said that studies show more than one-third of meals eaten in the United States are prepared outside home kitchens--mostly in restaurants or takeout establishments.

"Everyone pictures the kitchen of the future as a place that will order out whatever you want every night," says Wendy Ju, a graduate student and researcher on the project. "We are trying to move away from that."

Famed cookbook writer and television chef Julia Child applauds the move. She visited the lab several months ago and was not impressed.

"I would have expected they would have gotten further with what they were doing," says Child, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. "They hadn't come up with anything I thought was very interesting."

Child, 88, does not shy away from technological advances. She began using a computer in the 1970s for word processing and she is eager to try any new kitchen gadget.

"I'm for anything that makes cooking better and easier and brings people into the kitchen," she says. But far more interesting to her than anything going on at MIT is the new generation of microwave ovens that makes use of convection heat and high-intensity lights for better-quality cooking.

"What's missing from MIT is something like that, something that's truly new and revolutionary."

One bit of solace for MIT: Child visited Microsoft's future kitchen project and was similarly unimpressed. "I didn't think much was going on there, either," she says.

Selker's plan to change the direction of the MIT program includes one of his favorite projects--detached computer screens that look like thick table mats. Called "Room With a View," the wireless screens are spread across a table in his office.

Selker describes a scene in which each member of a family uses one of the screens at breakfast time. One screen could display the morning paper, another could cycle through vacation photos and another could access the Internet for a school project. All the screens would also be projected on the walls for everyone around the table to see.

"The whole family would be together," Selker says, "in the kitchen."

But not necessarily talking.

"Somehow or other," he says, "dogs have a wonderful time with each other without talking. At least they would be together."

In the small test kitchen at the lab, an ordinary looking Sharp microwave sitting on a high shelf was one of the first appliances modified by the kitchen project, begun in 1998.

It was equipped with an electronic reader that recognized the food put into it and set the timer accordingly. Of course, the food container had to have an electronic tag for the reader to recognize.

"You put in a pastry to warm, and when it was done it would say with a Danish accent, 'Your Danish is ready,' " Ju says. "We were trying to make technology fun."

The fun went unappreciated by visitors who tried the microwave.

"People told us they didn't want their kitchens to talk to them," Ju says.

The exception was when kids were involved in a kitchen task. Ju turns to the most functional test appliance in the room--a touch-sensitive counter top developed to teach kids ranging in age from about 8 to 10 how to follow recipes on their own.

A color projector above the counter beams pictures that can be manipulated by touch. Ju goes through a few selections before settling on a sour cream berry tart with a graham cracker crust. On the counter appears a list of ingredients and a full-color picture of the rather sophisticated looking dessert.

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