Smart products automate and digitize once manual tasks: locking a door, reading a recipe, listening to music, turning on the lights. For the kitchen in particular, most innovations (not surprisingly) attempt to improve how we interact with our food. Projections can help us cook, cameras can give us a glimpse of our refrigerator’s contents when at the store. These innovations may streamline the tasks of the kitchen, yet they rarely seem to address the everyday realities of kitchen life.
It’s striking that kitchens never resemble the pristine spaces featured in commercials and trade shows. Actual kitchens are messy, unpredictable places, where things are bumped, spilled on, and stacked up. They’re unique places, influenced by the habits, lives, and quirks of each home. They’re places where we connect with our friends and family in person. They’re remedies to the sense of disconnectedness that modern life often brings.
Recognizing this disparity, we set out to explore how kitchen technology – the refrigerator in particular – might evolve to meaningfully reflect the physical and digital realities of our homes.
If the kitchen is the heart of the home, where we go to be refreshed and connect with others, the refrigerator is the nerve center. It’s where we keep track of notes and schedules, post pictures of grandparents and kids and friends, and share things we get in the mail and cut out of magazines. The refrigerator is the original Facebook wall, Evernote, Instagram account.
Yet, apart from improvements in storage and energy efficiency, it hasn’t changed much since it was first produced for the home in the 1940s. Recent additions to the refrigerator include embedded screens, digital temperature controls, anti-microbial drawers, even coffee dispensers. These innovations address the primary purpose of the refrigerator storing food but we were curious about its broader purpose in the home. How do people use their refrigerators beyond a way to store food?
What we found
The refrigerator’s surface can’t be digitally standardized.
A small survey showed that refrigerators are home to a diverse multitude of things. Coupons, lists, calendars, photos, magnets, tickets, newspaper comics, kids’ drawings, articles, receipts, postcards, notes, emergency phone numbers.95% of the people we surveyed (36 of 38) posted items on their refrigerator, and the two who didn’t had refrigerators with non-magnetic stainless steel surfaces. Some were busy surfaces, others were meticulously organized at right angles – all were completely unique.
The refrigerator is a microcosm of the home, a visual confection of the kind of objects that will be forever physical.
It surprises us that kitchen technology innovators never show these kinds of things in their visions of the future. What might it look like to design with these objects in mind? How might the refrigerator evolve while preserving its meaning?
Learning from products such as Samsung’s Family Hub and projects such as IKEA’s future kitchen concepts , IDEO’s Concept Kitchen 2025 , and Jofish Kaye’s “Kitchen Manifesto,” we’ve explored concepts for the evolution of the refrigerator’s surface. We wanted to design according to the reality of the kitchen rather than the possibilities of digital technology, following Kaye’s charge to “understand what people are already doing in their domestic spaces and design around those activities.”
digital and physical
The primary realization from our study was that refrigerators are meaningful repositories for non-digital things. Why prevent people from using the surface in a way that they consistently do? And why not create interfaces that can adapt to physical objects?
We imagine the refrigerator surface as a plane where Polaroids don’t get in the way of lists, where reminders move out of the way of postcards when you walk by, where lists appear at eyesight for whomever might be looking. Digital items could displace, adjust, and consolidate around physical items. This leaves the use of the surface up to the people using it: it can be covered in physical miscellanea, blank as a computer screen, or somewhere in-between.
We distilled the variety of things people put on their refrigerators into five types of digital content: notes, lists, reminders, timer, and drawings. Each of these types of content act as self-contained modules, created and modified through straightforward gestures with an interface that covers the fridge exterior.
Our model for content types and input interactions is the open-ended flexibility of a whiteboard, and the ephemerality of an etch-a-sketch drawing. One survey respondent’s refrigerator actually used their refrigerator as a whiteboard, making notes and drawings and annotating pictures.
Interfaces shouldn’t draw attention to themselves, especially in the home. The notion of “casual technology” is apt: tools that “give us control and guidance when we need it, but are otherwise hidden – a surface simplicity that minimizes distractions.” An interactive interface on a refrigerator should be unobtrusive, embedded, and tactile. It shouldn’t be a showpiece, and should be visible only when desired.
The best interface isn’t no interface at all: it’s an interface appropriate to its purpose and environment.
As respondents’ pictures showed, the refrigerator surface is, above all, a shared surface, which means it ought to be usable and inviting to all. It should be within arms’ reach, and its content should be quick to create, archive, and share, as close to direct manipulation as possible.
Unlike a microwave or an oven, which might be off-limits for children, everyone in a family uses the refrigerator, which increases the chances of accidental input. And the surface itself is touched potentially hundreds of times a day. Minor barriers to interaction should be included, and the content itself should be easy to discard and archive. Call it interaction insurance.
The kitchen is where people receive life: life from relationships with one another, life from the food they make and eat together. The refrigerator’s surface, covered in the stuff of people’s lives, already corresponds to this life-giving atmosphere, so any digital innovations of it ought to correspond to this broader meaning.
Apart from the functional aspects of the surface, its design should facilitate the kinds of sharing and connection that already happen, in ways that can’t happen physically. Photos, lists, thoughts, and drawings should be shareable from one fridge to another. Send Grandma the latest report card. Send your spouse a shopping list. The surface can become a stream of curated connection from one home to another.
Digital things should embody the spirit of the physical things they are improving.
We envision the refrigerator surface being a type of thin, low-energy, high-resolution, fast-rendering screen that doesn’t announce its presence. A screen that doesn’t look like a screen, in other words, and one that doesn’t need to be pristine to be usable. Similar to e-reader screens, Liquavista’s “electrowetting” displays use oil to generate pixel colors (as shown in the adjacent diagram), which makes them clearly visible in bright light and thin enough to be unobtrusive and they aren't expected to be unreasonably expensive when mass-produced. These kinds of displays, coupled with touch sensitivity and installed above a magnetic surface, could turn the fridge into an interactive interface that preserves its role as a showcase for the life of a home.
Likewise, advances in ultra short throw projectors mean that any surface can become an interface, regardless of its material. Chris Harrison’s Worldkit, for example, shows the versatility of this approach.
What we learned
The best technology accommodates our idiosyncrasies and unpredictability. This ought to be particularly true of technology in the kitchen, where scribbled reminders are juxtaposed with fingerprints and spills and magnetic spice racks. As Rose Eveleth writes,
The future home is often presented as inhabited by idealized versions of ourselves. They are efficient and methodical, clean, quiet, and easily controlled. They're robots. Humans aren't like that, and no matter how much glass their homes are coated in, they'll be messy – both literally and figuratively. The kitchens of the future will almost certainly be full of high-tech devices, but they'll also be full of low-tech, funny, weird, idiosyncratic humans, and futurists would do well to remember that.
As designers of digital and physical things, we at Viget are curious about how the two types of experience can complement and intersect one another. We appreciate digital efficiency and flexibility; we celebrate tactile variety and customizability. We put action figures and books next to our computers.
Our physical things and our digital things matter to us, which is why we’re convinced that the future of technology won’t be the limitless digitization of things. This is particularly true about technology in the home, where we keep and enjoy our most meaningful things and where the balance of physical and digital realities needs to be most thoughtfully kept.