Kitchen Computer part 1 - Humble Beginnings

I'm toying around with the idea of making a kitchen computer. Why? Well, the obvious first reason is that I'm a geek, so putting a computer in every room of the house is not necessarily an idea I'm opposed to. That's right, every room.

Still, one normally needs more reason than that, especially if the room is host to a myriad of things that computers don't like, such as water, knives, heat generating boxes, and onions. And many attempts at computerizing a kitchen are complicated with minimal added value. So what do I want out of it?

Good question. I have some ideas, but I'm hoping for some help from my various loyal (and soon to be loyal) readers. As I come up with ideas, I'll put them into this series, but I'd like to hear from you what you think of any of the things I come up with, as well as ideas of your own. As I'm able, I'll start to work on putting this device together, with documentation of how I do it, and downloads of any software I make.

This will almost certainly be Macintosh software, as that's what I use. If anyone else wants to do something similar with Linux, Windows, BeOS, Palm, a tricked out iPod, or whatever, send me a URL and I'll link to it.

Now then, let's get to it. The obvious place to start would be recipes. Recipes are useful and easily available on the computer, so this would make sense. However, it means you'll have to have a display device that is large enough to display the recipes from your prep area, and ideally you don't want to go messing with it while your hands are covered in flour, so probably big enough to show the whole recipe at one go.

Microsoft Kitchen of the FutureThe tricky part is that recipes are an easy place to over-optimize. People naturally want to do things such as allowing you put in the ingredients that you have on hand, and having the computer figure out what recipes you have that fit your available means. Then you want to be able to keep track of what food you have on hand so you don't have to put it in each time, then you want the computer to tell you when you're out of something, and pretty soon, you've got one of those Kitchens of the Future that nobody would ever use. Which is not to say that having recipes is bad, but it is to say that you always have to maintain an eye on final function, and consequently know when to say, "enough!"

So, a simple recipe viewer, and a display large enough to read them. Okay, that's good so far. I might also include a printer, because there are times when you want to move the recipe about, or keep it next to messy things, or what have you. And, since I already have a printer, that's a minimal investment for me. Output is covered.

Which leads us to input. How do we get the information we want, and activate all of the other cool features of the site. Well, generally people go for touch screens, which are a cool way of inputting data when you have just a monitor available, but they're expensive, especially for Just Some Random Monitor, especially a large one. Plus, if we went for something crazy like a projection display (Microsoft did this in their Kitchen of the Future), then the touch screen wouldn't work. Then if you switched monitors from a CRT that you had lying around to an LCD, you'd have to replace the touch screen, etc. I don't like that option.

Keyboard and mouse are also normal. Modern mice don't have the physical ball to get gummed up, but if the laser or light sensor is covered, then you have to do some cleaning, which would be unfortunate. A keyboard just collects crumbs and their ilk like crazy, and although they are potentially dishwasher safe (well, certain keyboards, and that's with limited testing and only in emergencies), that's still a pain.

The iPod has a nice interface, though, and it has very minimal inputs. Maybe we could get by with something like that. Griffin Technologies has a cool device called the PowerMate, which is a scroll wheel with a button, plus some cool LEDs built in for feedback and special effects. That would let us go through a menu structure and select recipes, but might not give us all the control we need, having just one button. Still, it's a start, and we might be able to find something else to add on along the way. Perhaps a presentation remote control or similar.

Thus far, what we have is somewhat uninspiring and easily done with a recipe book or even a computer in another room. So we need the fancy features. One feature is that we could use Google as a measurement converter, which is handy from time to time. Still, not worth the time, trouble, and money.

Griffin PowermateNo, what I want is something catchy, something that brings utility, something that is hard to reproduce with standard tools, and something that will make my life easier in the kitchen. What I want are...thermometers.

But thermometers exist in the normal world, you may think. Sure, but not like this. I want wireless probe thermometers that can be linked to alarms, recipes, and can record the temperature vs. time so I can look at it later and make recipe adjustments with it. I could put one thermometer in the sugar on the stove, and the computer will warn me when it's approaching the right temperature for my recipe. One for the lamb on the grill, so I don't have to stand there watching it if my attention is called away. One for the oven, so I can tell if the internal temperature is correct or not. One for the fridge, so I can always know if it drops into the danger zone. One for the bread starter that I have resting on the screened in porch. One for me, so I know if I have a fever. The possibilities are endless.

No, I don't know exactly how I'll make these, but I'm pretty sure I have most of what I need. And sure, I could just get a bunch of wireless probe thermometers, but those are expensive, and after a few, it comes to the cost of your whole thermometer system. Hypothetically, anyways. Obviously, research will have to be done, but it's worth doing just to have, especially for me.

Okay, that's enough for a start. If you have an idea or suggestion, create an account and comment, please. I'd love to hear your ideas.

For the rest of the Kitchen Computer series thus far, check out: