Home computing: the Kitchen Portal

Kitchen Portal small Click on the picture to enlarge. Continue to Insel Hombroich, or go back to my home page.

The picture shows my "Kitchen Portal", which is an experiment in home computing. It is basically a laptop hung on the kitchen wall, and it is used for a variety of applications.

In practice the most used applications are: showing the time, playing music and general web surfing, roughly in that order. The time is displayed with a screensaver, synchronised over the Internet to one of my ADSL providers' NTP servers. Playing music turns out to be a fairly popular application. Most popular are local stations and copies of CDs that are stored on the home file server in the attic (which runs FreeBSD, by the way). Not all Internet radio stations stream reliably though, but a fair amount do, and this quality does not really correlate with distance. Web applications in rough order of popularity are: weather information and news, traffic conditions, and various recipe sites and other cooking and diet related information. Home grocery shopping has not turned out yet to be a popular application, possibly because the website of the service is too demanding of the hardware. Equally, video runs at 2 frames per second and is practically useless. A terminal emulator gives access to the FreeBSD server, and used to keep an eye on lengthy software recompilations.

The experiment grew out of an analysis of interesting places to put computers in the home. The rather obvious places are home-office desks, and entertainment locations, such as the living room. Breaking away from these approaches, I tried to apply my professional expertise, and looked at the places in the home where there is an relative intense information and logistic interaction with the outside world. I found it in the kitchen. The kitchen is the place where the rush hour in the home plays out, and you can use all the information you can get to make it run smoothly.

Ergonomically, the current setup is not very ideal. The screen is at a level where most people can comfortably watch it, but the keyboard is too high for extended usage. Even less comfortable is the touchpad, possibly for the same reason. With current windows systems a pointing device is essential, and it would be interesting to experiment with either touch screens, or track balls. In practice the shortcut keys on the top left of the keyboard are used very regularly, and it would be good to have a dozen or so of them. The stereo sound system of this particular model is fairly good. Its quality compares favourably to that of a portable radio. Given the signal to noise ratio that is typical of this environment more quality is a luxury. Higher volume would be nice at times.

For the experiment, the machine is hung of the wall by a piece of string. In order to stabilize the keyboard at an ergonomically convenient angle, a cardboard structure is hung behind it, suspended by its own piece of string. The cardboard is folded in a way to enhance its rigidity. An earlier version proved to be too loose.

The laptop is a Pentium 166 MHz, with 48 byte of memory, and a 600 by 800 pixel screen. This is really borderline in terms of performance. The operating system is Windows 98, because that is the most stable Windows version that can still run at some level of usefulness on this hardware. The application takes surprisingly little software. The most important items are: Internet Explorer 6, Media player version 9, the terminal emulator 'putty', the screen saver, and the networking stuff. It would be conceivable to run a non MS OS, if the appropriate media player for the typical audio web content is available. Some active desktop components run an additional clock and display the latest weather report. Networking is done by WiFi, mainly because of the complications of wiring the kitchen, which lies at the perimeter of the house. Its performance is adequate, although it appears to suffer from some interference by the microwave oven, occasionally. Most of the services used are based on the Internet. The only exception is the audio server (a Pentium 60 running FreeBSD) which is provided in-house. This is because there is currently no service on the Internet that will serve the albums that I own for free. There does not appear to be a reasonable service that requires more than the 1 Mbit/sec downstream speed that my current provider offers. The only exception would be a high quality video stream, but functionally there is little need for that in the kitchen.

Based on these experiences the ideal computer environment in the kitchen would consist of a flatscreen mounted at eye level, and a keyboard that is mounted much lower. This would resemble a kiosk setup. Further research in pointing devices is necessary. The touchpad is not very accurate for small movements. An additional peripheral device could be a barcode scanner, for online grocery shopping or product information purposes. There are no applications available for this yet, however. The sound system could be a little better, and connected to more powerful speakers. There might also be an application for a webcam. Application opportunities are: streamlining grocery shopping by allowing to store partial orders and scanning barcodes, personalised recipe databases where you can store your own recipes, including resizing these recipes. Additionally an on-line calendar with family, school and household events would be appropriate, but it should be linked in some way to the agenda's of individual family members. One could also imagine a personalised and dedicated web page that acts as a "kitchen portal" in the software sense. Most of the elements it should contain have been outlined above already.

A final note on innovation and technology, you can study these things without state of the art hardware. This hardware is currently (early 2004) years past its regular availability on the market. It is not even current on the second hand market. Even the WiFi equipment was purchased out of surplus stock years ago, when its manufacturer (No Wires Needed) merged with a competitor. Apparently, when it comes to taking advantage of modern technology, process adaptations lag severely behind technology. This is true particular for applications that optimise interaction with external parties. Apparently hardware innovation has outstripped demand for it.

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