The well-connected kitchen

Lou Lenzi Hero

GE industrial designer Lou Lenzi believes interactive kitchens can help support healthier lifestyles.

Take a good look at your kitchen—because it’s about to become unrecognizable.

Lou Lenzi
Lou Lenzi

Within a decade, says General Electric (GE) industrial designer Lou Lenzi, digital communications and sensors will dramatically alter many aspects of how the home kitchen looks and works, from all-in-one ovens with options for microwave, convection and thermal baking, to sensors that tell home cooks if food has been stored properly.

[Cooks] will be able to connect their ovens to smartphones or tablets, program the ovens to prepare food the way they like it, and share recipes with friends.”
—Lou Lenzi

As director of industrial design for GE Appliances in Louisville, Lenzi leads GE’s work to envision how technology may change Americans’ home lives. But it’s not just a theoretical exercise for Lenzi: In late 2013 GE unveiled Home 2025, a set of scenarios that project how technological advances may alter home life by the mid-2020s, developed by analyzing the evolving lifestyles and priorities of the largest U.S. demographic groups: baby boomers and millennials.

“We thought about trends like multigenerational households where aging parents move back in with their children, and about what each of these groups will need over time,” says Lenzi. “Instead of just talking about technology, we focused on people.”

Lenzi brings to appliance design a wealth of experience that ranges far beyond the kitchen, however. He entered the field working on information technology products at IBM, then moved to consumer electronics and subsequently to GE Healthcare, where he designed large diagnostic imaging systems. “I like designing appliances more, though, because they serve basic needs in the home,” says Lenzi, who has worked on every new product that GE Appliances has released since 2011, including combination microwave and wall ovens, and refrigerators with dispensers that produce hot water at temperatures ranging from 90 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit (no more need to wait for a kettle to boil).

Smaller, smarter kitchens

Lenzi predicts kitchens will be getting smaller because consumers will be more urbanized and more concerned about the environment in the next decade. “Designers increasingly are focusing on smaller, high-density high rises, multigenerational residences, and bungalow-sized ‘empty-nests,’ with units as small as 250 to 400 square feet,” he says. “We set out to design a complete, fully functional kitchen that would take up no more than 5 percent of total living space in those units,” which translates to roughly 12 to 18 square feet.

But GE’s kitchen of 2025 packs many functions into those tighter spaces. One module, for example, combines an under-the-counter refrigerator, dishwasher, sink, composter, cutting board, herb planter and water dispenser into a single unit. Sensors in the sink and dishwasher will detect chemicals or bacteria in food and alert cooks that the items need further washing. Another sensor in the faucet will measure consumers’ body hydration levels with the touch of a finger, so they can see quickly whether they need to drink more water.

“One insight we’ve picked up from our colleagues at GE Healthcare is that diseases are easier to manage if you catch them early,” says Lenzi. “That leads to the idea of monitoring your diet. We don’t want to dictate users’ behavior, but we can give them tools to manage their own lifestyles. Sensors can tell cooks whether they’re preparing and storing food properly.”

GE’s Kitchen of 2025 also relies on appliances that can be programmed remotely, and in some cases can transmit information beyond the home. “We already have products that connect to the Internet and receive feedback. You can preheat a wall oven remotely now,” Lenzi says. “Going forward, we think connectivity will make appliances even more efficient.” For example, refrigerators may be designed to monitor food inventories and transmit grocery orders, which would be delivered to the house through an external port.

Get cooking

Cooktops in GE’s future kitchens use magnetic induction, which produces a high-frequency electromagnetic field under cooking pots made of magnetic materials such as cast iron. The field creates a circulating electric current in the pot, which generates heat and cooks the food. Because heat is generated only within cooking vessels, the cooktop remains cool and can also be used for food preparation or cooling. Induction cooking also is more energy-efficient than cooking over gas or electric burners because pots heat up more quickly and less heat is lost during the process.

Another futuristic cooking module combines an induction cooktop with a standard thermal oven and an Advantium oven, which can cycle between microwave, convection and radiant cooking modes. “Cooks will have much more personalized control over their appliances,” says Lenzi. “They will be able to connect their ovens to smartphones or tablets, program the ovens to prepare food the way they like it, and share recipes with friends.” These features reduce the “chore” factor in cooking and give users the option to make it a social experience.

Some consumers may not welcome the prospect of all-digital kitchens, especially those who gave up trying to program their VCRs years ago. But Lenzi emphasizes that GE’s future kitchens will be designed for mass-market customers, not just for early adopters.

“We think the evolution of connectivity and sensor-based homes will unlock a whole new level of usability,” he says. “Devices like the Nest [an interactive thermostat, not made by GE, which learns users’ schedules and programs itself to fit them] will become more widespread.” Similarly, refrigerators in GE’s kitchen of 2025 have “flex-temp” shelving systems that can cool foods on each shelf to the appropriate temperature. And a heater called a Fresh and Serve can be programmed to cook meals for family members (for example, an elderly parent) to eat hours later, keeping the food hot and fresh until serving time.

Bringing ideas to life

GE Appliances is testing many of the trends identified in its Home 2025 forecast through FirstBuild, a partnership with Phoenix, Ariz.-based automotive design firm Local Motors. FirstBuild has two elements: a microfactory in Louisville that opened earlier this year, and an online network of engineers, designers and home enthusiasts who can sign up to help design and build prototypes for real products.

“Participants have proposed more than 300 ideas for advanced kitchen systems, including a probe that measures a roast’s temperature and moisture and calculates remaining cooking time, and a garbage disposal that chops food waste for composting,” says Lenzi. “It will be a dynamic process: We’ll develop a prototype, drop it into a building and let the tenants work with it, then tell us what they think.”

Feedback from these small-scale tests will inform future product development, he adds. In September 2014, FirstBuild debuted its first product, a $19.95 software development kit called Green Bean that will enable programming-savvy users to access the microcomputer inside selected GE appliances and build apps to customize and control the appliances.

Jennifer Weeks

Jennifer Weeks is a Massachusetts freelance journalist who specializes in environment, science and health. She has written for The Washington Post, Boston Globe Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Audubon, Discover, Slate and many other publications.

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