The Kitchen: The Next Tech Star

Since the dawn of the consumer technology business a century ago, the spotlight has always been on entertainment technologies—sound and vision—and, more recently, productivity, starting with the PC 50 years ago. These days, 8K, 5G, voice assistant-enabled smart speakers and VR/AR are sucking all the hype oxygen out of the high-tech room.

Appliances, on the other hand, have traditionally been viewed as low-tech, dowdy poor relations, associated not with the fun and function of glamorous entertainment, leisure- and productivity-centric A/V, gaming, smartphone and computing technologies, but with cooking and cleaning drudgery. Appliances are regarded as mundane necessities, not drool-inducing desirables.

At IFA a few weeks back, I got the sense that a subtle shift is taking place in this usually pedantic world of household appliances. Perhaps a major tipping point in how appliances are perceived was the introduction of the trés cool robot vacuum cleaner; Roomba proved consumers were ready for Jetson’s-like home appliance tech. As a result, over the last few years, refrigerators have been growing TV screens and internal cameras, increasingly sophisticated coffee makers are automating the home brewing of a variety of sophisticated beverages, and washers and dryers are now smart enough to recognize fabric types know and how to clean them. With more and more large and small appliances embraced by varying smart home ecosystems such as Amazon Alexa, LG ThinQ and Bosch’s appliance-centric Home Connect, along with growing front-page climate change concerns, cooking and cleaning devices are suddenly being thrust into the technological and energy-consumption spotlight.

One developing kitchen technology, however, could  transform home technology in toto: Ki Cordless Kitchen, a more powerful version of wireless-charging technology Qi being developed by Qi’s Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), specifically to wirelessly power small kitchen appliances.

According to the WPC, Ki will deliver up to 2,200 watts of power, compared to the puny 5-15 watts pushed by Qi—enough AC to juice juicers and nearly any small kitchen appliance. Ki power spots will be “smart,” sensing exactly the size of the device placed on it and the amount of power required to operate (although a Ki pad will not charge a Qi smartphone). Ki still needs some time in the oven, however; the WPC forecasts the first Ki gear will appear in 2021.

Like Qi, Ki charging pads can be built into or retro-fit under existing kitchen non-metallic countertops no more than an inch-and-a-half thick. Ki charge points would be invisible; they’d be marked on a countertop by a sticker or decal.

More importantly, Ki charging spots also can be integrated into induction cooking hobs. Yes, you’d be able to cook or power small appliances right on the same spots on your countertop. Adding Ki to induction hobs, which dominate kitchens in European where gas stoves are rare, will likely be the wireless power technology’s first application.

The developers of Ki have their eye on more extensive structural changes to what home technology might look like in the next decade.

A tangential argument for the technology might go something like this: One, the technology might reduce power consumption of small appliances by only drawing power when used, instead of being constantly plugged in; and two,  replacing natural gas stoves with dual Ki/induction hobs could lower fossil fuel demands, and fit into smart-grid, and  smart-city developments.

Considering that new capabilities always spark unanticipated innovation, appliance makers, already building in additional Ki intelligence, could make Ki-enabled kitchen gear operationally smarter as well. Perhaps as a preview of a next generation of smarter kitchen gear, at the IFA show in Berlin a few weeks ago, Bosch unveiled its Alexa-enabled (and AC-powered) smart food processor/cooker combo Cookit, which includes a 5-inch color touchscreen, auto operation for certain cooking operations such as mixing or kneading, and a database with more than 200 recipes. This class of smarter small appliances at some point powered sans AC cord could be better integrated into a smarter home for remote monitoring and control.

If Ki can provide enough wattage to power small appliances, it’s not beyond the realm of imagination or possibility that Qi or a non-appliance version of Ki could someday supply enough wireless power to operate a wider variety of portable and perhaps heretofore stationary A/V and computing gear such as smart speakers and other electronics.

Qi and Ki aren’t the only wireless power schemes being devised. Also under development are a number of incompatible IR and RF farther-field wireless power transmission schemes from companies, including Energous, Ossia, uBeam and Wi-Charge. All are attempting to commercialize systems similar to how Wi-Fi works, transmitting low power at distances measured in feet to heretofore battery- and AC-powered smart home devices, such as Wi-Fi security cameras, remote controls, smart locks, door/window sensors, game controllers and, smartphones (and maybe even laptops and other higher-draw devices).

Once interoperability standards and compatibility issues are dealt with, Qi/Ki and these potential farther-field wireless power transmission, combined with Wi-Fi 6, 5G and other fatter wireless data and connectivity pipes, could eventually create a new wave of smarter devices that might not require batteries and AC wall outlets. Who knows? Wireless power may just be the primary building block that fuels the future smart home.