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At CES and KBIS, connected smart appliances begin to deliver a smarter kitchen

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***Original post published on Digital Trends***

This week, CES 2018 descended upon Las Vegas, while at the same time, another industry show, the Kitchen and Bath International Show (KIBS), brought all sorts of innovation to Orlando, Florida. Appliance makers such as GE and Samsung were split between the two, but there was at least one trend that united almost every manufacturer we saw at either show: guided cooking is coming to your kitchen.

Step-by-step

Only a few years ago, “guided cooking” was relegated to countertop smart appliances and accessories that could take amateur chefs through every step of a recipe. Through the use of apps or built-in touchscreens, the Hestan Cue, Thermomix, and Drop Kitchen Scale helped cooks by setting themselves to the right temperature, automatically stirring contents at the right speed and duration, and giving exact measurements far more accurate than a measuring cup could.

best personal sous chef devices drop scale

While smart fridges, ranges, and ovens have been on the market for years, they’re just now catching up with what putting connectivity in a major appliance might mean for busy people. In addition to Wi-Fi, manufacturers are also adding full-color touchscreens, like the new GE Profile wall ovens, which have a 7-inch LCD touchscreen. The promise has always been that someday your fridge will be able to choose a recipe for you based on your preferences and the groceries you actually have stocked inside, then send it to your oven for preheating, while on one of your many screens, videos play to help you master unfamiliar techniques. According to companies such as Whirlpool, we’re practically there.

Whirlpool has acquired Yummly, an app that finds recipes based on your likes and dislikes, as well as skill level and time commitment. At CES 2018, Whirlpool announced that Yummly 2.0 will integrate with some of its smart ovens. The new version of the app has improved image-recognition technology so it can take an inventory of your food and order anything missing from Instacart. Tutorials and videos are integrated into the app, which can also send instructions to a connected oven or microwave. If your recipe calls for two cups of water, it can send a message to your smart fridge, which will dispense just the right amount when you’re ready with your cup.

Smart appliances are taking advantage of step-by-step recipe apps to make cooking less stressful.

Lots of appliance makers announced similar integrations with different apps at CES or KBIS this year. Bosch said its smart Home Connect appliances — including those from Thermador — will soon get a boost from food platform Kitchen Stories, which the company acquired. Similar to Yummly, it offers how-to videos and detailed instructions, and will be able to send heating instructions to smart ovens.

Meanwhile, LG is pairing with Innit and SideChef for its connected appliances. Innit, a platform that wants to “digitize food” to help make it easier to track it from its source to your home, then assist you with cooking it, has already partnered with Bosch and GE. Not only will SideChef’s app read aloud its directions for you, it wants to help even those who are afraid of the stove learn to cook, so it will teach you how to boil water, if you need that level of help. A lot of this lends itself to voice-assistance integration, and you may also be able to ask Amazon Alexa and Google Home to help you through some of these steps, based on what appliance you have.

Boy meats world

Amazon would love you to use its Echo Show as a kitchen assistant, so you can view videos and ask Alexa to read you through the steps. GE announced its own vision of a cooking-centric screen at CES: a Kitchen Hub that goes above your stove. Not only does it work with Alexa and Google Assistant, it acts like an Echo Show in that it plays videos, lets you listen to playlists, and controls Zigbee and Z-Wave smart home devices. Samsung and LG put their hubs into fridges with screens and voice control.

smart home trends ge kitchen hub

With something like GE’s PT9051SLSS and PT9551SLSS wall ovens, the idea of guided cooking is a bit more oven-centric. On the touchscreen, you can choose the “precision cooking” option, and it will take you through the rest. Let it know what type of food you’re cooking (meat, vegetable, bread, and so on), and it will drill down into the category, figuring out preferences for how well done you’d like your steak, for example.

From there, it will tell you which rack to put it on and what type of pan to use. This may not appeal to a seasoned chef (and they have the option of using it like a regular, old oven), but it could certainly help some novices. After launching with a couple hundred recipes, GE can push new ones to the oven via an update over Wi-Fi.

Even if you’re just heating up a frozen pizza, Whirlpool says you’ll get a benefit from its Scan-to-Cook feature.

You may think it’s pointless to have an oven that sets itself to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, but the real benefit comes with multistep cooking. Even if you’re just heating up a frozen pizza, Whirlpool says you’ll get a benefit from its Scan-to-Cook feature; use the app to scan the barcode, and it will ask you if you prefer your pizza chewy or crispy. Either way, it will send the exact directions to your smart oven. If you do want a crispier crust, the oven will automatically turn the broiler on for a bit at the end to blast the pizza from above and make it a little browner than usual — all without you having to do anything.

Imagine what a smart oven can do for something more complicated. Innit has said it can cut the cooking time for ribs from 3.5 hours to 58 minutes by changing the temperature in an oven several times in the same way a professional chef would.

Family matters

Unless you’re making a frozen meal, cooking is going to involve more than just your oven or microwave. That fact has behooved smaller devices to partner with appliance makers; the Drop scale works with GE, for example. But it also benefits the appliance makers to be open to Amazon and Google, as well as platforms such as Innit.

Right now, the sticking point in the connected kitchen experience is the stovetop. Controlling the temperature in your oven is one thing, but controlling the burners on top is another. Until appliance manufacturers start making connected cooktops, there’s a stopgap of products such as FirstBuild’s Paragon, the Hestan Cue, and Buzzfeed’s Tasty One Top — all connected induction countertop cookers. It’s one reason why Frigidaire’s upcoming freestanding induction range is so exciting — it will cost under $1,000, when all others on the U.S. market are over $1,500.

Induction lends itself to precise temperature control better than gas or radiant heating, so hopefully we’ll see more ranges that actually make use of smart technology inside and out in the near future. For safety reasons, we’d never expect to be able to use an app or voice command to turn on a stove remotely, of course, but simply control it once it’s already on. (The Hestan Cue turns on via app, but it operates via Bluetooth, so you have to be right there when you do it.)

We expect to see more integration from food producers to push forward a more fully integrated kitchen.

And while small appliances have roles to play in the connected kitchen, too, we expect to see more integration from food producers to push forward a more fully integrated kitchen first. Amazon is pushing its Dash Buttons and replenishment services as ways of keeping tabs on your groceries, and pretty much every connected fridge we saw at KBIS this year had cameras inside to let you check whether you have orange juice via an app while you’re at the store.

Samsung says the new version of its Family Hub fridge will have a better meal-planning app that takes into account what you have on hand. But inventorying it all is still a bit of a pain and focusing on the fridge ignores what’s in your pantry. There are solutions such as connected canisters, but they’re pricey and the experience isn’t seamless or integrated enough to make it a game changer.

While all these appliances might excel at helping you make individual dishes, actually making a whole meal is still a bit of a challenge. Ideally, you’d have one app that tells you how many onions to cut for all three dishes you’re making, not just the first one. And then it would let you know to preheat the oven for the roasted vegetables, even though you’re actually browning the meat for the pasta sauce. There’s a lot of potential for meal kit delivery services here, which do this in written form on the included card for a single night’s meal.

samsung family hub

It might also alleviate some of the grocery integration headaches, as they deliver exactly what you need for a specific number of dinners, so you don’t have to worry about the extra broccoli going bad in the crisper drawer. Chef’d is one such meal delivery service, and it’s already partnered with SideChef; it wouldn’t be too far of a leap for it to extend that to LG and have its ovens primed for instruction when you’re ready to start cooking the kit.

It’s not quite the era of the connected kitchen, though it is on the horizon. It seems like we’re almost at a tipping point where it’s harder to find an appliance without smart technology than to find one that has it built-in. From a manufacturer’s standpoint, it makes sense: They can deliver improvements via over-the-air updates, get data about how you’re using the appliance, and troubleshoot problems before sending out a repairperson.

And while some of the features may be exciting or intriguing to busy parents or reluctant cooks, people have concerns, especially over safety — and not just the potential for hacking. “I don’t want my toddler telling Alexa to turn on my oven,” someone told us at KBIS.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

Digital Trends is a leading consumer technology publisher helping people navigate an increasingly digital world. With easy-to-understand product reviews, entertaining news and videos, Digital Trends serves more than 30 million unique visitors each month. Digital Trends reaches 90 million tech influencers through their own media network, and its syndicate partners include Yahoo!, FOX News and more than 200 broadcast news stations. Digital Trends is headquartered in Portland, OR with offices in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago.

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Prepare for liftoff! Here’s 7 crazy facts about the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

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Like many folks, we were super excited about this week’s Falcon Heavy rocket static-fire engine test. Unfortunately, the demonstration of the SpaceX rocket which Elon Musk hopes will one day wing its way to Mars was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to logistical and safety concerns.

While no new date has yet been announced, you can entertain yourself in the meantime by feasting on some of these astonishing stats about Musk’s red planet rocket.

It’s the world’s most powerful operational rocket

spacex falcon heavy press

Being, essentially, three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together (a single Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as boosters), the Falcon Heavy promises to swat away the pesky confines of gravity like a giant swatting away a fly.

SpaceX hails it as the “world’s most powerful rocket,” and that’s no exaggeration. In fact, it is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, boasting more than 5 million pounds of thrust. To put that figure in perspective, it’s the equivalent of eighteen 747 airplanes firing at once.

Its maiden flight will carry a fairly unusual payload

spacex falcon heavy aerial

You know Elon Musk is deadly serious about the success of his Falcon Heavy maiden flight when he promises that its cargo will include his personal Tesla Roadster as a dummy payload.

As Musk wrote on Twitter, the first Falcon Heavy’s “payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing ‘Space Oddity.’ Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.” We totally hope he’s not kidding. At any rate, it beats firing monkeys and dogs into space.

It can carry a whole lot more than just a Tesla Roadster, though

spacex falcon heavy fairing

The Falcon Heavy’s 27 engines and three cores are capable of transporting more than 54 metric tons (119,000 lb), including passengers, luggage, crew and fuel.

That’s equivalent to a 737 jetliner and more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy. Only the Saturn V moon rocket, which was last flown in 1973, was able to deliver more payload to orbit.

It has taken longer than planned

spacex falcon heavy center core

Even before its recent delay, the Falcon Heavy was running late. Announced in 2011, it was originally supposed to have its maiden voyage back in 2013 or 2014, only for that date to be pushed back.

In 2015, SpaceX said the first rocket launch would happen in early 2016. When no launch transpired, that date was pushed back to late 2016.  Then, after one of SpaceX’s rockets exploded on a Florida launchpad in 2016, that date was put on hold until 2017. In the middle of the year, Musk tweeted that this would happen in November, before delaying it once more to January — and now beyond that as well.

“It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought,” Musk said last year. “Really way, way more difficult than we originally thought. We were pretty naive about that.”

Given the enormity of the undertaking, delays are no great surprise, of course. Hopefully early 2018 will turn out to be the time when this eagerly anticipated test launch does finally happen — for real this time!

It is “competitively priced”

spacex falcon heavy night

Everyone’s idea of affordable is a bit different, but SpaceX is confident that the Falcon Heavy offers “competitive pricing.” A fully kitted-out version will set you back $90 million on a standard payment plan.

Too rich for your blood? SpaceX will offer “modest discounts,” although you’ll probably need to buy a few rockets to secure this. Or arrive at the showroom in a brand new Tesla Model X.

It has impressive fuel economy (although not as good as Elon Musk wants)

spacex falcon heavy engines

Unlike the Tesla, Falcon Heavy needs actual honest-to-goodness fuel to power it, but at least it promises pretty good fuel economy. Not only does it (as mentioned) claim 2x the payload of the next closest operation vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy, but also that it will deliver this at just one-third the cost.

As of April 2016, the idea is that Falcon Heavy will be able to lift 2,268 kg to GTO (geostationary transfer orbit) for a cost of $3,968.25 per kilo. That’s more than 3.5x the $1,100 per kg that Musk stated was his ultimate goal with SpaceX when appearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2004.

Still, it’s an impressive step in the right direction — and the plan to have a recoverable upper stage should lead to a further reduction in cost for subsequent missions.

There’s something bigger coming down the track

spacex falcon heavy horizon

The Falcon Heavy was designed from day one with the mission of playing a key role in Musk’s dream of carrying humans to Mars. But it won’t be the final piece in the puzzle.

As Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, told Ashlee Vance, author of Elon Musk: How The Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is Shaping Our Future: “Our Falcon Heavy will not take a busload of people to Mars. So, there’s something after Heavy. We’re working on it.”

As has since been revealed, that “something” would be the Interplanetary Transport System, a.k.a. The Big F***ing Rocket.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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WhatsApp targets small businesses with new app for better communication

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WhatsApp, if you didn’t already know it, has a massive user base. Chances are that you’re part of it.

More than a billion people around the world fire up the messaging app every day, with a growing number of people using the service to converse with businesses.

The Facebook-owned startup has decided to lend the smaller outfits a hand, launching a new app called, would you believe, WhatsApp Business. Its main goal is to improve the app’s ease of use for companies dealing with a large number of WhatsApp messages on a daily basis.

Specifically, WhatsApp said the app is aimed at making it easier for businesses to respond to customers, and separate customer and personal messages. Overall, it should help them to create a more official presence on the platform.

One obvious difference to the regular app is the addition of business profiles that let companies include more information about their business, such as a description, address, and website details.

The free app also comes with smart messaging tools designed to offer fast answers to FAQs, as well as greetings messages that introduce a potential customer to the business, and “away” messages so customers know you’re busy. Potentially useful messaging stats are also part of the package.

WhatsApp Business is available now for businesses in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Mexico, and Indonesia, and is coming to the rest of the world in the next few weeks. But take note, at launch the app is an Android-only offering.

WhatsApp edges toward monetization

Perhaps the only surprise about WhatsApp launching the new business-oriented app is that it’s taken it this long to do so. The move will be seen by many as a notable step toward the company monetizing its service, something that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hinting at doing pretty much ever since he bought the startup for $19 billion in 2014, five years after it launched.

WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum and Zuckerberg have been happy to play the long game when it comes to making money out of the messaging app, which has always been cautious about introducing revenue-generating schemes such as ads.

Instead it’s been trying over the years to get regular users comfortable with interactions with businesses, with a possible view to charging brands for the valuable contact opportunity.

As far back as 2015, Zuckerberg insisted the slow approach could prove lucrative in the long run, telling investors: “The long-term bet is that by enabling people to have good organic interactions with businesses, that will end up being a massive multiplier on the value of the monetization down the road.”

The new WhatsApp Business app is another step toward that goal.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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Instagram now shows when you’re on the app, and here’s how to stop it

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If you’re the kind of person that turns off read-receipts on messaging apps at the first available opportunity, and you’re on Instagram, then here’s another “feature” you’ll be wanting to take care of.

In a nutshell, it lets some of your Instagramming buddies know your activity status on the app, and gives you information on their activity, too. And it’s switched on by default.

By “activity status” we mean how many minutes and hours since you last checked in to look at content. It’ll also say “active now” if you happen to be scrolling through your timeline when they check.

Viewable inside the Direct Messages section of the app, the data is only shared with users that you follow as well as anyone that you message privately. So, no, people that follow you will not be able to check your activity status — unless you’re following them, too.

Instagram describes it like this: “Allow accounts you follow and anyone you message to see when you were last active in Instagram apps. When this is turned off, you won’t be able to see the activity status of other accounts.”

Indeed, if you’d prefer not to share that kind of information on Instagram, it’s easy to stop it.

Simply open the app, go to your profile page, tap the gear icon for Options, and then scroll down till you see “show activity status.” Tap the button beside it and you’re done.

It’s not clear when Instagram introduced the functionality, though it may have come as part of updates rolled out for iOS on Tuesday and Android on Wednesday. With no announcement, there’s a chance it could be a test with a limited number of users, so it may even disappear as quietly as it arrived.

The Facebook-owned company is continuing to roll out updates and test potential features on a regular basis, some more significant than others. Earlier on Thursday, it emerged that Instagram is currently trialing “Type,” a feature that lets you add photo-free text to one of your Instagram Stories. Several fonts are offered, and the app automatically chooses a colored background for you. If you want to jazz it up a bit, you can still select one of your own images as a background, though Instagram will fade it so the text stands out. As with all testing, Instagram will evaluate the results, and possibly tweak the feature, before deciding whether to roll it out to everyone.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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London’s anticipated electric black cab launch loses its spark

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The much-anticipated launch of London’s first electric black taxi has pretty much fizzled after problems with the vehicle scuppered its smooth arrival.

The “TX” cabs, an updated version of the city’s iconic taxi design, are being built by the London Electric Vehicle Company (LEVC) and were supposed to arrive on the streets of the capital toward the end of 2017, the Guardian reported this week. But the car, which costs a hefty 55,600 pounds ($77,230), is no longer being delivered to drivers because of an issue with its meter, which is pretty important when you consider a taxi’s primary role.

The technical glitch reportedly results in fares much lower than they should be — a boon for tourists and locals hopping in for a ride across London, but not much good for a cabbie trying to make a living.

“Deliveries are subject to a short delay as a result of an unexpected issue with compatibility with the taxi meters and the taxi,” LEVC said in a tweet on Wednesday. “The problem is understood, and it involves the pulse messages sent between the vehicle and the meter.”

LEVC said it has found a solution and is now working with Transport for London (the city’s travel authority) and third-party meter suppliers “to get the updated, approved meters installed so we can begin customer deliveries in earnest.”

The new electric taxi has a driving range of 70 miles, but that extends to 400 miles with its three-cylinder petrol engine that performs as a generator for a battery pack and electric motor. The system could save cabbies 100 pounds ($138) a week compared to current diesel taxis, according to LEVC.

Inside the vehicle, riders will find seating for six people and modern features such as Wi-Fi and charging ports for mobile devices.

Steve McNamara, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association, told the Guardian that the TX is “a fantastic vehicle” and said it could help prompt locals to switch to “electric, clean and green” vehicles.

As for London cabbies, McNamara said many are currently reluctant to ditch their diesel-powered taxi, explaining, “We’ve got to pay 12,000 pounds ($16,700) more for a vehicle that we don’t know the reliability or durability of, at a time when the market is being squeezed by that company.” Yes, he’s referring to Uber.

Another issue is an apparent lack of fast-charging points, with only 90 currently in operation across the capital. To have a serious impact on emissions, cabbies will have to regularly charge their taxis to avoid having to use the gasoline range extender. TfL promises more rapid charging points are on the way.

The rollout of the new electric taxi is clearly presenting some serious challenges, but TfL is aiming for 9,000 of London’s more than 20,000 black cabs to be “zero-emission capable” within two years.

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***This post originally published on Digital Trends***

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