To Invade Homes, Tech Is Trying to Get in Your Kitchen
SAN FRANCISCO — On a recent Saturday night, German Salazar made chicken tacos for his friends while they chatted with him in his kitchen. Occasionally, he interrupted the conversation to talk to another friend: Google.
Mr. Salazar was speaking to Google Home, the artificially intelligent speaker living on his kitchen counter. “Hey Google, set a timer for 20 minutes,” he said, to activate a countdown for when the chicken would be cooked and ready for shredding.
At first, Mr. Salazar’s friends snickered when he talked to the speaker. But after a few bottles of wine, everyone began grilling Google Home with questions and requests: “How much did Jamie Lee Curtis make in ‘True Lies’?” and “Tell me a joke.”
For many people, the kitchen is the center of the home and a locus for interactions that go beyond preparing and eating food. Now tech companies and appliance makers, aiming to deepen their relationships with customers, are increasingly targeting the room that is synonymous with togetherness.
Household brands like Whirlpool, Samsung and Bosch are racing against tech behemoths like Google and Amazon to dominate the kitchen with internet-connected appliances and cooking gadgets that include refrigerators embedded with touch screens, smart dishwashers and connected countertop screens with artificially intelligent assistants that react to spoken commands.
Yet the so-called smart kitchen remains a tough sell. With the kitchen often a hub for families and friends, habits there can be hard to change. And many people see the kitchen and mealtimes as a haven from their otherwise always-connected lifestyle. Only 5 percent of American households own smart appliances today, up from 3 percent in 2014, according to the research firm Parks Associates.
“Will we see a reinvention of the kitchen like we saw in the living room?” said Michael Wolf, a tech analyst who hosts a podcast and a conference about the smart kitchen. “I don’t think it will happen overnight. There’s going to be a lot of skepticism.”
Apart from their fears of disrupting the rhythms and patterns in the heart of the home, people may be hesitant to incorporate smart devices into their kitchens because of the costs of maintaining such appliances, which are often difficult to repair and use expensive components like touch screens. They also may worry about longevity: A touch-screen refrigerator may look modern today, but who knows how dated it may appear in five years?
And with many smart kitchen appliances incorporating internet connections, cameras or microphones, digital privacy has become a concern. Security researchers said that one problem with smart appliances is that, unlike tech companies, household brands lack the cybersecurity expertise to vet products for vulnerabilities.
Julie Kim-Whinston had some of those misgivings when she renovated her San Francisco home recently. For the revamped kitchen, she bought appliances from Wolf, Viking and Bosch — all lacking big screens, virtual assistants or internet connections. Ms. Kim-Whinston, a consultant in outerwear and sportswear, said she found smart appliances unappealing because the tech components could quickly go obsolete.
The kitchen and the dining area are also where she, her husband and their two sons, ages 5 and 7, congregate and converse, she said. She said she did not want her children to be exposed to a refrigerator with a big touch screen.
“Knowing how addictive their personalities are, they would literally stare at the refrigerator screen hoping for something to come up,” she said. “They’d be touching it and moving it, hoping it’s a video game.”
But the potential payoff for manufacturers makes the kitchen an enticing target. The global kitchen appliances market is expected to balloon to $253.4 billion by 2020, up from about $175 billion in 2014, according to Allied Market Research.
That has companies spreading their tech tentacles into kitchens with a variety of approaches. Samsung, the No. 1 phone maker that popularized smartphones with extra-large screens, this year unveiled a new version of Family Hub, a smart refrigerator that understands voice commands and sports a 21.5-inch touch screen. The appliance has three built-in cameras, which can beam live images of the fridge’s contents to a phone.
Samsung bills the fridge as the next control center for a home — albeit a pricey one. Family Hub refrigerators start at about $3,500.
“We’d really like consumers, at some point of time, to look back and say, ‘These days, a refrigerator without a screen feels awkward,’” said Sunggy Koo, Samsung’s vice president for smart appliances.
Samsung’s aim is for people to someday conduct their digital lives with equal ease from a fridge, a phone, a television or a car. Fed by data about you in the cloud — and with the help of a virtual assistant — all of the machines will operate in perfect synchrony to enable a maximally efficient domestic life.
Bosch is taking a more conservative approach. Its smart dishwashers, ovens and coffee machines, which range in price from about $1,300 to $3,100, look just like their disconnected counterparts and mostly use their internet connections for remote diagnostics. If a problem occurs, the appliance can automatically send an error code to Bosch’s customer service team, which can help determine whether you should fix the problem yourself or schedule a repair.
“Whenever we talk to our customers, we get the feedback that they really appreciate technology when it makes their life simple, but they don’t want to bother with additional complexity,” said Anja Prescher, Bosch’s director of brand marketing.
Whirlpool emphasizes the use of smartphones as kitchen companions. The company last year acquired Yummly, a recipe site that developed an app for scanning items in a refrigerator or pantry. The app then comes up with suggestions for what to cook and walks the user through recipes.
For now, Amazon and Google are having some of the most notable successes in the kitchen, even though their devices are not specific to that room. Many people use Amazon’s Echo speaker or Google Home, both of which are embedded with the companies’ smart virtual assistants, for setting kitchen timers or looking up recipes.
To take advantage of the frequency with which these devices end up in kitchens, the companies are expanding on those products with voice-controlled smart screens. Last year, Amazon debuted Echo Show, which can load step-by-step recipes on the screen. Google this year unveiled Smart Display, a software system that it shares with manufacturers like Lenovo, which will release smart screens this year that feature Google Assistant and can run apps and play recipe videos.
But those devices have also raised privacy questions. The Amazon and Google screens constantly listen for voice commands, and they include cameras for placing video calls. Amazon and Google said they offer the ability to mute the microphones and turn the cameras off.
Richard Gunther, a software consultant who works from home in Annapolis, Md., hates cooking but loves kitchen gadgets and high-end appliances. He uses his Amazon Echo to turn on his sous-vide cooker and he also owns a $399 Tovala smart oven, which includes a bar code scanner to identify meal kits and set the proper cooking time and temperature.
Yet Mr. Gunther isn’t sold on the brave new world of smart appliances. He said that when he was shopping for a new refrigerator late last year, he researched Samsung’s Family Hub and was turned off by the idea of using cameras to look at what food was inside. Why not just open the door and check?
“Trying to keep track of whatever I have inside by remembering to scan something or put the milk carton back in the same place where I had it before and not have it obscured by a piece of fruit in front of it?” he said. “I can’t be bothered by all of that.”
He ended up with a dumb fridge from Sub-Zero for $23,000.
Follow Brian X. Chen on Twitter: @bxchen
Raymond Zhong contributed reporting from Suwon, South Korea.
A version of this article appears in print on March 26, 2018, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Smart Kitchens A Tough Sell, But Tech Tries. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe