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Dinner and a network

Jun 10, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Internet Home Alliance readies “Mealtime” pilot in Boston

If you can’t work from home, the Internet Home Alliance has the next best thing. Come this summer, the group is setting up 20 Boston families with “intelligent kitchens,” geared to helping working mothers put a good hot meal on the table, even when they’re stuck in the office or in traffic.

“Mealtime isn’t for men. It’s for working Moms, that’s the bottom line,” says Tim Woods, vice president of ecosystem development at the IHA. “Working Moms are the most discerning consumers. They have to make things work and have an uncanny ability to shift through the BS. They’re the first to say, ‘This is too hard, too painful, I’m not going this route.’ ”

The IHA is a nonprofit, pan-industry group of companies advancing the home technology market. Members include Cisco, Whirlpool, Microsoft, Sears and many others. Mealtime addresses the notion that working Moms are dually frustrated by wanting to do their jobs well and nurture their families. They don’t want to order pizza every night, they want to put a bit of themselves into the meals they feed their families. So the IHA has brought together components and network technology that help Moms better manage the process of cooking dinner and control that process from outside the home.

What’s involved? The centerpiece of Mealtime is the new Whirlpool Polara Refrigerated Range, which includes a built-in compressor. With Polara, you can prepare a meal the night before and stick it in the oven. You tell the range what time the next day you want the meal ready, and the range will keep the meal refrigerated until it’s time to start cooking. 

That’s all fine, but what if Mom ends up working late, or the family decides last minute to go out to eat? For the pilot, the IHA networked the Polara so you can remotely control the oven via a Web-enabled device, be it computer, PDA or phone, allowing you to either adjust the cooking time or cancel the operation altogether. The Polara will connect to an IBM residential gateway via an Echelon low-speed power-line modem, meaning the Polara plugs into the power outlet like always.

IBM’s WebSphere application is used to display the correct interface on the various wireless devices Mom might use to talk to the range. The residential gateway hosts IBM’s J9 virtual machine, which runs servlets that are compliant with the Open Services Gateway Initiative, says Bill Bodin, the IHA’s CTO and senior technical staff member at IBM. (For more on OSGi, see the link below.)

Throughout the day, the Polara will send Mom messages alerting her to the meal’s various stages: “Hi Mom, I’m coming out of refrigeration mode and gearing up to start cooking dinner. Still want it ready at 7?” or some such. For safety reasons, the Polara settings can be changed or cancelled remotely, but not activated. You must turn on the range manually. (Otherwise, some cell-phone pickpocket might…turn on your oven…really high?)

The Mealtime intelligent kitchen also includes a Whirlpool refrigerator with an embedded Web tablet with 802.11b wireless connectivity (not yet available in stores), as well as an Icebox, a Web-enabled entertainment device that mounts beneath the kitchen cabinet. Icebox includes a TV, DVD player and an FM radio. HP is providing a printer, hoping Mom might want to download and print recipes from the Icebox or Web tablet.

Of course, Mealtime doesn’t help you shop or chop onions. But Phase Two of the pilot, beginning around August-September, involves connecting the Boston families with online grocer Peapod, which distributes groceries via local Stop & Shop supermarkets. This arrangement will let Mom shop via the Icebox or Web tablet, and have the order delivered.

How Boston will receive Mealtime remains to be seen. “We’re the first to admit we don’t have the answer yet,” Woods says. “But we’re putting this into people’s hands so they can tell us what the answer is or isn’t.”

The IHA promised I can visit one of these families once the pilot begins, so in a few weeks I’ll give you a first-hand report. If you have any questions for the pilot families, or want to share your thoughts on the pilot, drop me an e-mail.