In the winter of 1969, the luxury retailer Neiman Marcus offered to modernize the home culinary experience with a kitchen computer, a $10,000, 100-pound sleek contraption that was supposed to be half table, half cutting board and all brains. With the push of a few buttons, the thing promised to compute the perfect home-cooked meal. But the world wasn't ready for (expensive) thinking machines in the kitchen; the store didn't sell a single model. We've been waiting for the dawn of the smart kitchen ever since.
A new startup, named June, wants to make good on that promise. On Tuesday, it's unveiling the June countertop oven, a $1,495, glimmering, custom-designed hunk of stainless steel with a touchscreen and a single knob. It looks like the result of a love tryst between an iPhone and an Easy-Bake Oven. The sleek machine is programmable, Internet-connected and somewhat intelligent.
Say, for instance, that you want to make yourself a medium-rare steak. All you have to do is stick the slab of meat in the oven. The thing will instantly recognize it as a steak and weigh it. You stick June's temperature probe into your steak and it'll keep track of its temperature.
"With these three points of data, it will recommend a cooking program that will cook your steak to your preference," June co-founder and CTO Nikhil Bhogal told me as he showed me the June in the kitchen of the company's San Francisco headquarters. "You'd pick medium-rare, press start and just walk away…When your food's done, you'd get a notification on your phone."
This isn't the first time AI has been applied to the kitchen, of course. Last year, computing giant IBM announced a partnership with culinary magazine Bon Appetite to use Watson—the AI that won Jeopardy!—to help mediocre cooks become iron chefs by suggesting new, interesting ways to use ingredients. More recently, Chef Watson published a cookbook (with some oddball recipes) in collaboration with the Institute of Culinary Education. Then there's PreciBake, a company that develops algorithms that can track how well things like bread and cookies bake inside an oven and then make adjustments to ensure your baked goods come out perfect. How much consumers are actually using these things is still unclear, but businesses and entrepreneurs are betting that this is the future of cooking.
According to research firm Next Market Insights, the "smart kitchen" market is expected to grow to roughly $10 billion by 2020. A recent survey by the same firm showed that almost a quarter of home cooks use tablets or smartphones when cooking. June engineers are hoping that at least some of these will make the leap to use more high-tech devices.
"Connectivity is touching everything that we do every day. You look at the modern cars, and they're powered by computers," says June co-founder Matt Van Horn. "The kitchen, and the home as a whole, we see as a very large trend that's coming."
Inside the June, there's two fans to make sure heat is distributed evenly for more uniform cooking, heating elements that heat up in seconds (instead of minutes as with most ovens), a scale to weigh your food, and a camera that captures video of your grub as it cooks. You can watch it through an app and even upload the livestreams to Instagram. (A cool, science-geek aside: the team had to figure out how to keep the camera inside the oven from melting. To do so, they developed a cool air curtain by using fans to suck in cool air from the countertop, up through a slight opening in the glass, and up to the top, where the camera sits, keeping it cool.)
These things are neat glimpses into what the future of cooking might look like: social, smart, personalized, efficient. But that future isn't yet fully fleshed out. The capabilities of the oven are pretty limited, but they'll likely improve as the team gathers more data to tweak and improve their algorithms. Those modifications would then be baked into updates the user could download.
"Just like the apps on your smartphone get better, your kitchen will get better with software," Bhogal said.
For now, it works best with recipes perfected for the oven, just like the Easy Bake Oven recipes we experimented with as kids. It's only trained to recognize 15 different types of food, like bagels, cookie batter, toast, asparagus bacon and common proteins like chicken, beef, salmon and pork. If you're a vegan, and you want to throw some faux chicken strips or some cactus in there, chances are the thing will go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
"The personality that we've given the oven is of a polite helper," Bhogal told me. "If it's not super confident in what it recognizes, it'll just stay away and not interrupt you." In case you're clueless about what to do, you can use the June Chef app, which has expert cooking programs for a bigger variety of foods. That seems like kind of a hassle, especially if the idea is to have a smart contraption make your life easier, but okay.
And that brings up the elephant in the room: consumer adoption. As of today, you can preorder one of these ovens on the company's website. But would you? I explained it to my friend over drinks, and her reaction boiled down to, "Why do I need this? How hard is it to set a timer and press a few buttons?" Do you really need an oven that validates what you already know: that what you're putting in the oven is actually cookies, salmon or a bagel? Do we need another way to share food-porn vids?
She's not as much of a tech fangirl as I am, but even I had some of those concerns despite getting to try a delicious chocolate chip cookie baked in the thing. Many "smart" kitchen gadgets — internet-connected fridges, coffee makers, forks, and ovens — were supposed to revolutionize the way we cooked and ate, but so far they haven't really caught on. I'm not a cook—I use my kitchen mostly to make coffee—but it strikes me that even this really cool, sleek, intelligent oven is still a novelty gadget, and not an inexpensive one.
Maybe if you've got your kitchen pimped out with Le Creuset ware and Breville appliances, that won't seem like a lot. But it's a lot to pay for most of us, and it likely prices out the people that could benefit the most from an appliance like this: single parents; new parents with multiple young kids, retirees living on social security. Yes, it's likely that if this — or another product like it— takes off, the price will come down, making it more widely available to a more financially diverse clientele.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.