Making kitchen counters compute

Project: Researchers at MIT envision your next cooking space as a center that keeps track of your preferences, inventory, and the next ingredient to add.

May 10, 1999|By Beth Daley | Beth Daley,Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Beneath a glass bowl and a jar of peanuts on the fourth floor of the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology rests the single person's answer to a cooking catastrophe: an intelligent kitchen counter.

How many nuts? Too few means candy with no crunch; too many makes the dessert crumbly.

Forget the recipe; just pour those peanuts into the bowl. Yawn, maybe daydream. The counter top will tell you -- yes, it will speak to you -- to stop when there are enough nuts in the bowl. It'll tell you to pick up the butter next, and let you know when you've added the right amount. A few more steps and presto: perfect peanut brittle, every time.

That's the concept behind a five-year research project at MIT called Counter Intelligence. Started in October, the kitchen of the future is being created here: intelligent coffee machines that know to make a double espresso at 8 a.m.; microwaves that know how long to cook frozen French toast to perfection; refrigerators that know exactly what needs to be reordered on grocery day.

The founding spirit behind this project is Joseph Kaye, a 22-year-old MIT graduate whose goal is to create a completely personalized kitchen. Kaye will begin studying for his master's degree next year by donning an apron and mixing cutting-edge item-identification technology with coffee, cookies, and anything else he can figure out how to make "smart."

Essentially, Kaye wants to turn your entire kitchen into a computer. Appliances could communicate with each other. Lights could flash when the washing machine reaches the spin cycle. The kitchen would track coffee gone from the pantry shelves, ice cream taken from the freezer.

The technology relies on a replacement for bar codes called Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. It's used in automated toll collecting -- like the new Massachusetts Fast Lane program at the eastern end of the Massachusetts Turnpike. As do bar codes, RFID tags contain specific information: Fast Lane has names and addresses for billing; in grocery shopping, they hold item prices.

Mr. Java, Counter Intelligence's first creation, uses the tag technology. The souped-up Acorto 2000 coffee maker sits in a cramped student and faculty kitchen in the Media Lab.

About 30 people in the building have coffee cups with round RFID tags glued to the bottom. The tags contain a computer chip that holds information about the cup owner's coffee preferences. A sensor underneath the machine's spout reads the tag and pours: latte, a little extra milk, extra large. Your coffee, perfect for you every time.

Meanwhile, a computer keeps careful track of the coffee that leaves the machine -- whether it goes into tagged mugs or a visitor's plastic cup. It registers what type of coffee is dispensed, how much, and at what time.

During a recent demonstration, Mr. Java was feeling fickle. But when running smoothly and efficiently, it is easy to see that its ability to gather data about individual cups has huge implications for tracking information not only in coffee shops, but in grocery stores and warehouses. It's why Kaye has companies like Kraft and Nestle underwriting his research.

Grocery stores keep track of items when their bar codes are scanned in at the register. But the process can be cumbersome; bar codes must be read individually and can be difficult to scan if they are dirty or torn. Expensive manpower must be used to take inventory of items still on the shelves. With RFID technology, inventory could become completely computerized and more efficient. Because the RFID tags can be read through a product and from farther away than bar codes, each item could be equipped with a tag and the shelves embedded with sensors, enabling workers to know exactly what's on every shelf at all times. Sold-out items can be reordered more easily, items found more quickly.

What's more, the RFID technology could mean that many tags are read almost at once: Just push your shopping cart past a device that reads the tags on all your items and tallies the final price.

In the future, your kitchen will do essentially the same thing: Keep constant track of almost everything.

"Instead of a computer on a table, you'd have a computer all around you, all the time," Kaye says.

Still, the technology is not complete; Mr. Java and other machines are prototypes. Some ideas didn't work out, including a refrigerator with a bar code scanner: It was too cumbersome.

But as he sketches out the future, Kaye sees great things: a smart washing machine, a revised refrigerator. The bachelor doesn't plan on letting kitchens do all the work -- Kaye loves to cook. He just wants the milk to be fresh and in the refrigerator, the flour on the pantry shelf.

But mostly, he wants the peanut brittle to be perfect, every time.

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