A computer's place is in the kitchen

Forget the living room. The kitchen is the true family hub now. Here's what Amazon is cooking up.

A Wall Street Journal exclusive last week revealed that "dozens" of Amazon engineers who worked on the failed Fire Phone at the company's Silicon Valley-based Lab126 were (true to the branding) fired.

It was a great scoop but the Journal buried the lead. The 20th paragraph dropped this incredible fact:

"Still in the works is a high-end computer for the kitchen — code-named Kabinet — designed to serve as a hub for an Internet-connected home and capable of taking voice commands for tasks like ordering merchandise from Amazon.com."

I take this news very seriously. The reason is that Amazon has demonstrated vision and the capacity to lead in the consumer electronics industry.

I own an Amazon Echo, a cylindrical object with pretty lights that is mostly speakers inside. It also has a microphone and all the electronics necessary to connect to the Internet and convey sounds in both directions. On the other end of that Internet connection is a Siri-like female-voiced virtual assistant named Alexa.

Alexa isn't as smart as Google Now or as quick with witticisms as Siri. But she's got something no other virtual assistant has: a physical body, sort of. Because Alexa is embodied in a hardware device -- a virtual assistant appliance -- my wife and I have, for the most part, stopped using Siri and Google Now in favor of Alexa. My son and his wife rely heavily on Alexa as well. A simple voice command to Alexa is all that's needed to turn the lights on or off at their home.

A home appliance is a better place for a voice-interaction virtual assistant than a phone, tablet or computer; Amazon knew this, but Apple and Google apparently didn't.

The Echo listens all the time for the command "Alexa." When she hears her name, Alexa accepts and processes whatever you say to the best of her ability.

I keep my Echo in the kitchen, where I ask Alexa to set multiple timers, make cooking conversions, tell me the weather, play podcasts and music, catch me up with the latest news, order batteries and more. Alexa can also be used for controlling home automation devices by voice -- not only things like the lights, but also the sprinklers  and other systems.

Echo is literally the most useful device in my home. The flood of apps supporting Amazon's recently unveiled Alexa API haven't even hit yet.

When I'm using the Echo, it's clear that talking to the room is how most human-computer interaction will take place in a few years. (Or the car. Or the office.)

Amazon's "Kabinet" system sounds like an Echo with a screen and faster processing, as well as the ability to run apps and function as a home-automation hub.

If that's true, then Amazon may beat the rest of the industry to the computing platform of the future.

Where it all started

Little-known fact: The world's first-ever computer for consumers was a kitchen computer.

In 1969, one of the products for sale in the Neiman Marcus catalog was a $10,000 Honeywell machine called the Honeywell Kitchen Computer. It was really a 16-bit minicomputer called the Honeywell 316, but with kitchen applications.

Would-be users of the Honeywell Kitchen Computer had to complete a two-week training course. The input was a toggle switch, and the output was blinking lights. But it did have an integrated cutting board.

They probably didn't sell any.

Why the kitchen is a home's true hub

The biggest companies in Silicon Valley have been battling for years over the "future of the living room." It's assumed that the living room is a great place to set up a hub for home automation technology because you probably already have an Internet-connected TV box there, and possibly a powerful game console.

I think that's a bad assumption. The home automation hub should be in the same place where the family usually congregates in real life. In most homes, I think that's the kitchen.

In our house it's the first place we go in the morning and the last place we visit before going to bed. It's where people hang out, and where we spend a lot of time making food and cleaning up. It's our natural habitat.

Before mobile phones, many American homes had a wall-mounted telephone, next to which you'd often find a bulletin board for calendars, messages and reminders.

Families have long used their refrigerators as message boards, photo galleries, places to display birthday cards, children's finger-paintings, coupons, checks to be deposited, invitations, shopping lists and to-do lists.

Because the refrigerator is in the kitchen, and the kitchen is the place where a lot happens and where we frequently spend time, it's only natural that the kitchen is the most intuitive place to keep track of things we don't want to forget.

Increasingly, kitchens are designed with seating of some kind -- often bar stools around an island or on the side of a counter -- so people can sit there and eat, drink or just chat. Some newer homes include a combination kitchen and family room.

People are cooking more, and many people eat most or all their meals at a table in the kitchen itself, rather than in a separate dining room.

When people go into the living room, they often do so for a specific purpose -- to talk, watch TV, play video games or something else. They go there to escape their chores and tasks and schedules and all the rest.

That's why the kitchen is the best place for a family computer.

A recipe for home automation, communication, shopping and information

The natural behavior of humans shows that kitchens are the de facto spot for family communication, displays, organization and more.

It's also true that kitchens are used primarily for storing and making food. Cooking is a data-intensive activity involving recipes, instructions, ingredient information, measurement conversions and more. A kitchen computer can provide all the necessary data.

Once the cooking is done, you've got to clean up. That's boring, so people want entertainment while doing the dishes. A kitchen computer can entertain.

When you use up the last of your paprika or discover that you're low on paper towels, you want to order more -- and schedule delivery -- right away. That's better than writing down what you need on a grocery list. A kitchen computer can handle your shopping -- especially if it's a kitchen computer from Amazon.

Finally, when we talk about home automation, we're talking about dumb appliances made smart, mostly. Most home appliances are in the kitchen, and very soon we'll see the mainstreaming of smart toasters, smart ovens, smart dishwashers, smart mixers -- smart everything. A kitchen computer can serve as the control room for all the smart appliances in your house.

I recently reviewed a smart cooking scale that blew my mind. It's called the Adaptics Drop Kitchen Scale for iPad. In a nutshell, the scale communicates via Bluetooth with a dedicated iPad app. That combination lets you do amazing things.

Drop kitchen scale with iPad app GetDrop.com

The Adaptics Drop Kitchen Scale for iPad takes you step by step through the whole process of preparing a recipe.

You can pick a recipe and the Drop scale takes you step by step through the whole preparation process. If the recipe serves six, but you're making a meal for two, it will instantly change the amounts of all ingredients. You add everything to a single bowl by weight. It knows just when to prompt you to preheat the oven and that sort of thing.

Now imagine that instead of an iPad, the scale interacted with your central kitchen computer. Further imagine that all your smart appliances were similarly connected to the same app. The kitchen computer could start and set the oven, guide you through every recipe, give you all your timers, make your ingredient conversions and substitutions and more.

Imagine that the same kitchen computer uses beacon technology.

It could know, based on the proximity of your family members' smartphones, who is in the kitchen. You could leave a note for a member of your family, and the computer would display the note and play it with video or audio when he or she walked into the kitchen. (When your daughter gets home from school, she'll get your message saying you left a snack for her in the refrigerator.)

And the computer could do all this with Echo-like voice command.

It sounds like this is what Amazon's "Kabinet" project is all about. But even if Amazon doesn't make a special-purpose computer for the kitchen, somebody else will.

Because the kitchen is the perfect place for a computer.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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