(Post)Human-Food Interactions

(This is the write-up of the presentation I gave at the Victoria & Albert Museum as part of Digital Futures: Future Food)


I will talk about some of the work I have done at the Royal College of Art in Human-Food Interaction. Let’s have a look into the future of cooking. We have robotic chefs now, and they look like this:

So we are told that the robotic chef will do for cooking what the vacuum cleaner did for cleaning. To me, cooking and cleaning are two very different activities, in their own ways. But they do have one thing in common. They are mostly performed by women. They are the ones who know how to cook and clean and everything. But we don’t get to see any women in that video. Instead, we get to see male engineers and chefs, and these technologies are being developed without the people who actually know to do these tasks.

However, I did some digging and in the next video there is not only one but three women. Let’s have a look.

So, there is a lady, who asks Alexa, to ask Geneva to turn the oven on, which is right behind the first lady. And we have all these situations and set ups and renderings, but if you really think about them they feel very weird. But they still shape our desires and expectations and pave the way for the technologies to come. And we get so much into it that we willingly ignore their failures.

In that video LG’s marketing chief mentions the washing machine and the fridge, and before we saw cooking being compared to cleaning, so I want to elaborate a little bit on this. The industrial revolution in the home, that happened up until the 60s, with the introduction of the washing machine, vacuum cleaner etc, promised to eliminate work and liberate people from domestic tasks. But what happened instead was a transformation of the housework. It became less intense, but more individualised and frequent. Laundry is a good example: from a weekly — yet collective — nightmare, became an unending task (Nick Srnicek quoting Suzan Strasser).

But the main I would like to ask in relation to food is this: Since when did food and cooking become a problem? We try to reduce cooking time, because there is this tendency to make everything faster and more efficient, and we use computational technology to do that because this is what computers do.

But I think this is a misunderstanding of both technology and cooking. Yes, cooking can take time and there are people who struggle to deal with everything, even though I think they look very differently to the ones in the videos we saw before. But it can also be a highly creative, caring and empowering activity. And the way it works is very different to using a screen.

What we see here is a Minority Report-like user interface, full of numbers and buttons. We have calories and time — because time is important — and a vast amount of recipes.

But what we have seen in our work is that recipes look and function very differently. They can be scrapbooks and collections of memories and they have a cultural value of their own. And people don’t see them as input devices, but they use them very creatively. They will deviate based on preferences or what’s at hand. Also cooking varies across cultures and countries. This goes far beyond translating a recipe from one language to another. Italian people follow recipes quite closely, knowing which sauce goes with which type of pasta, because they have built up this empirical knowledge of geometry and viscosity etc. But we also worked with Korean people, for example, and they rely a lot more on their bodies to do measurements and they have developed a bunch of amazing tricks and gestures to understand when the food is ready or if they need to add more water.

And this embodied approach to cooking is a very interesting one. And it is interesting because it bypasses a barrier when it comes to experiencing and communicating food: Language

That might sound paradoxical, but our “language is delivered (setting aside Braille) only in acoustic or visual form, and it seems ill adapted to describing many of the senses that haunt our memories or excite our bodies, like taste and smell, touch and proprioception” (Majid and Levinson, 2011).

And for us this where technology comes in, as the active way through which we interact and communicate with each other and with the world to in order to create new experiences and connections through food.

So now I would like to share with you my favourite piece of technology from my kitchen.

I present you the pepper grinder.

This is a tiny food generator, it takes pepper corns and grinds them to fine pepper. Its use is an involving, multisensory experience. To grind, we use both hands and our vision, while aroma is released. It does a really nice, toy-like sound once you rotate it. You can calibrate pepper’s granularity by rotating this little knob. This changes the distance between two gears and produces finer or more coarse pepper. This specific grinder has a transparent body, so you can see how many corns there are left and you can refill. It is, I think, a great piece of design.

It is also magic.

After a few tries we have developed muscle memory to use it without any conscious effort. We don’t count the rotations and we probably don’t really know exactly how much pepper we add, could be a third of a tea spoon, or something like that. But it doesn’t really matter. Because we have moved from measurement and representation to action and participation. And I think this is important and tells us a lot about the ways we design our products and systems and the ways we interact with and through them.

So I created a little public performance to demonstrate some of these things. I made-up a scenario based on the food replicator from Start Trek, a machine that can recombine matter into any food you desire.

Replicator from Star Trek: The Next Generation

The food replicator was in reality a piece of wood that acted as a divider between visitors and myself. In Human-Computer Interaction, this method is called Wizard of Oz: A researcher is simulating the use of an non-operative machine. I briefed people that the food replicator was malfunctioning, and could only do plain rice. However, they could still control the amount of pepper they wanted on their dish. From the other side and hidden from people’s view, I used a pepper grinder to add pepper to one’s rice dish, which I then served through a slot.

People could the communicate the desired “pepperiness” of their dish to the “machine” (aka myself) by one of the following ways:

  • They could talk to it and verbally describe the desired “pepperiness” of their dish. In that case, I had to listen and try to guess how “peppery” they wanted their rice.
  • They could visually express their preference, by writing and/or sketching on post-its. They would then put the post-its into the “machine” through a slot. On the other side, I would read the post-its and add what I thought was the corresponding amount of pepper.
  • Finally, people could use a pepper grinder prop. The prop was a simple prototype made of scrap plywood. Though it didn’t release any pepper, people could use it to mime the action of grinding. Instead of pepper corns, the prop had a rotary encoder and a micro-controller. Thus, it could read the number of rotations and transmit it to an iPad I had at the other side. I could use then apply the same number of rotations to the real grinder.

Shouldn’t come as a surprise, but people (and myself) enjoyed using the prop. They found it generally more intuitive than verbal or written language. It also turned out to be a very good vehicle for cultural insight, partly because of its simple design. People mimed the very personal ways in which they use their own grinders at home. Few people turned it upside down, because their grinders are designed differently to the one I based my design on.

What is surprising is the lack of attention to these situated practises. What is not surprising, in turn, is the resulting division between the things we do and the ways we are asked to interact with and through new technologies. And we are trying to bridge this gap by using inappropriate methods. We see interfaces becoming more anthropomorphic and we create them in our own image, repeating all the mistakes and stereotypes of the past.

There is nothing anthropomorphic in this grinder. But despite, or perhaps because of that, I think is deeply humane.

Thank you.

(This work is part of Open Food, Design Products, Royal College of Art. Open Food is an EPSRC funded project).