You may have seen or read about the latest trend in super-high-end kitchen design: appliances that are voice-activated, embed smart algorithms, are smartphone-app-connected, are internet-enabled (of course), and more. Features and functions are limited only by marketing imagination and engineering technical expertise.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, for example, talked about the trend and its pros and cons (see “The Future of Kitchen Design Is Hands-Free and Smartphone-Activated;” it’s behind a paywall, but there are many other articles and photo spreads in high-end decorating/architectural publications and their sites). As for cost – well, not to worry, it’s in the many tens of thousands of dollars for the appliances alone, and for some kitchens, the total runs into six figures. That’s one expensive automatically and robotically brewed cup of coffee, for sure.
Figure 1 Modern kitchens are eautiful and high tech, but apparently there’s no place for dirty dishes or towels. Source: Next Luxury
I’m not here to criticize how people choose to spend their money; after all, by buying all these high-end kitchen appliances, they are keeping engineers busy, factory employees working, and installers and other craftspeople occupied. Many of the people showing off their ultra-tech kitchens admit, directly or by implication, that they are more for show than actual cooking use.
Even if you wanted to use them, you’ll likely need many hours or even days to initialize the appliances, establish connectivity, set preferences, and learn to actually use them – that’s a lot of work just to be able to make a meal. These kitchens combine “conspicuous consumption” (a term created by economist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class) and planned obsolescence (a concept that gained popularity in the late 1920s in the context of new automobile models). All this so that one owner cited the article can say he “shouts out ‘mac and cheese’ for just the right amount of water for the recipe his family of five uses” or have a refrigerator that lets your smartphone – and thus you – know that the door is not closed?
The underlying issue in these expensive showpiece appliances is the one we now face with so many devices and products: do we add functions and features because they serve a productive purpose, or just because we can? Given all this sophistication and complexity in the kitchen, what happens when there are software bugs in the product from day one? What happens when the manufacturer downloads “regular” updates and suddenly things no longer play together nicely, or even an individual appliance won’t do what it used to do? What about network security and hackers? Will the manufacturer be supporting the appliance for the 10+ year life of most appliances, or will they say, “sorry, we no longer provide software support for your microwave oven?” Will you spend more time fiddling with everything than these products save? Will you need a technician on 24/7 retainer to keep all the units and their connectivity functional?
Appliances used to be mostly analog, with some switches, flow sensors, electromechanical relays, and buttons. For example, according to various consumer surveys and appliance-fandom sites (yes, those does exist), among the most reliable automatic washing machines was the Maytag A608 (figures 2 and 3). Several users reported that their A608 only required a new motor/drum belt every eight-to-10 years over 20+ years despite daily use, at a cost of $20 for the belt and $50 for the repair service (or you could easily do the repair yourself).
Figure 2 The Maytag A608 is among the most reliable and easy to repair of the low-tech clothes washers. Source: Automaticwasher.org
Figure 3 The user controls of the Maytag washer are super simple and a good match the basic functions it provides. Source: Automaticwasher.org
There were many comments to the article on extreme high-end kitchens; mostly negative. While those were subjective feelings, several commenters noted that they had purchased some of the cited appliances and found they couldn’t stand the realities of line-voltage surges, brownouts, spikes, and so on, and had experienced multiple and expensive PCB failures.
One reader said his high-end stove’s controller board failed twice due to line problems in 24 months (outside of warranty, of course) and replacement boards took about a week and cost $1000 plus installation (of course, if you are spending $50,000 on these appliances, it’s likely more a matter of aggravation than money). Clearly, these units with their sensitive electronics need more than basic surge protection, and probably more than required by various industry standards – but adding this is not a feature that they might want to promote, as it reminds customers that these appliances actually are line-sensitive.
The utility of some of these costly add-ons puzzle me. For example, how useful can a camera (actually, two of them) located in the refrigerator be to allow you to remotely assess, inventory, and track contents (hey, do we need more milk)? Many items will be blocked by others or their labels will be facing the wrong way, for starters. Will you have to line them up neatly after you put something in or take something out, so the contents are ready for their eventual selfie? Will the camera report that your fridge is full of messy leftovers? Still, at least the camera allows you to finally answer everyone’s nagging question: “does the light really go out when the door is closed?”
As for me, my preferred “kitchen” is the food replicator seen in Star Trek. What’s your view on embedding such advanced technology to home appliances and other mass-market consumer items? Do you see the user gain being worth the pain (cost, headaches, risk), or is it a frivolous exercise?
- CNET, “Bosch’s fridge with food recognition might make me actually want a smart kitchen”
- Bosch, “Master your home with connected appliances”
- Reviewed, “This App Shows You What’s In Your Fridge”