By Adam Salomone
I'm just back from Seattle and the Smart Kitchen Summit. If you were on the fence about attending, check out the #SmartKitchen17 stream on Twitter for some of the highlights. It was one of the top conferences I've been to in a while, in part because of the companies, startups and individuals in attendance.
Sitting in the audience, talking with people in the industry and playing with some of the tech on display, I've come away with a few thoughts on the future of our kitchens (smart, dumb or otherwise):
We're building walls around supposedly "open" technology - Call me naive in the age of Google, Facebook, Amazon et al, but I always felt that part of the promise of an ever-technologized world would be more openness. At the very least, we've been told that smart kitchens should create more interoperability and open access. What I saw at SKS greatly challenges that assumption. Startups are taking the razor blade model to an extreme, trying to sell consumers niche products that cost hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars, and then upselling on food plans that are designed to work specifically for those hardware products. We don't realize how agnostic our current kitchens are until the appliances we restock them with fail to play nicely with other appliances or food products.
Long upgrade cycles for large appliances will require interim solutions - While large appliance manufacturers (among others) are pushing all manner of refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers and more with smart features, it's unlikely that mass adoption of these appliances is going to happen anytime soon. Upgrade cycles for kitchen "technology" are very, very long (at times a decade or more). In between now and then, the interim success will go to companies that are developing ways to upgrade dumb appliances without a lot of friction. One example: a company that develops small sensors for the fridge to detect humidity, temperature, and gauge food quality. It offers a compelling avenue for consumers to dip their toes into smart kitchen tech without spending thousands of dollars.
Robots to the rescue for your next weeknight meal - SO. MANY. ROBOTS. Maybe these are the early iterations of what will become Rosie of Jettisons fame. Some of the solutions seem novel. Others seem bulky, cumbersome and expensive. Most seem like they require consumers to use them a lot to justify the expense, both in terms of valuable counter space, learning curve and monetary outlay. Michael Natkin, CTO of Chefsteps.com said it best: "We're talking about mansions and living in mud huts." Indeed, we're just at the beginning of what could be the future of cooking. And robots will no doubt play a role. But, I feel that entrepreneurs are missing an opportunity to engage with potential customers who are cooking (or who want a home-cooked meal) to figure out if/how their proposed solutions fit into a consumer's kitchen and life.
Solving big problems comes next - By and large, I came away with a sense that many of the solutions being talked about are in search of problems. Or at the very least, are susceptible to the bubbles that can overtake urban innovation while leaving behind "mass market" consumers. It's indicative in the cost of many of these products, and what they assume about consumers' level of culinary education, tastes, preferences and more. There were definitely some innovative gadgets and approaches, and many could grow to power the kitchentech revolution. But I also feel like some of it is missing the point. The benefit of getting people back to the kitchen lies in the ability to take back control of their health, wellness and relationship to food (among other things). And there is a risk in assuming that we can push a button and have a robot do it all for us. There's a middle-ground, where tech can create more seamless experiences that allow people to appreciate food more fully.
The power of personal - Everything is personalized these days. And judging by the way we talk about it, personalization is framed as this overt and explicit functionality. But, the promise of personalization lies primarily in the fact that, when done well, consumers won't have any idea its happening. And, that personalization will undoubtedly be powered by the massive amounts of data that all these smart appliances are going to collect about us. It's the age-old give-and-take between privacy and convenience. But, it's worth considering that once we open the door to the kitchen, there will be an unprecedented level of information available about what, how and why we cook that could even go beyond the limits of what we currently divulge about ourselves (whether intentionally or not). We are what we eat, first and foremost.