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An RFID paradise

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Microsoft is hard at work solving the problems of moneyed illiterates who hate to cook. Those who can't quite manage to interpret the microwaving instructions printed on a cup of dehydrated soup no longer need to worry: the Microsoft Kitchen is alive with RFID (radio frequency identification) transponders that tell the microwave oven how long and at what intensity to nuke your soup powder or Macaroni & Whey Dinner for perfect results every time.

A recent FoodTV special called "Kitchens of the Future," narrated by "Good Eats" presenter Alton Brown, gave MS (and IBM, about which more below) a chance to dazzle us with their latest culinary kit.

The Microsoft Kitchen features a heavy reliance on RFID for inventory control, and numerous, unnecessary Internet connections. It also includes a magic countertop that reads the RFID information emanating from each appliance and grocery placed on it, then offers to instruct one in manipulating them in quest of a meal.

It does this in two ways; first it projects text instructions on the counter's black work surface, consuming half of it. Second, it talks; and it's very precocious, MS says.

Program Manager Pam Heath demonstrated by placing an electric mixer and a sack of flour on the magic counter top, which immediately deduced that dough would be involved, and began haranguing her in a tinny, synthesized voice.

"Wouldyou like someassistance?" the disembodied fembot demanded.

It then offered several sets of instructions for using dough in cookies, pastry, bread, and the like. Heath chose bread, and the gadget began barking orders at her.

"Stepone: Diviiide thedough. Spring kel thewood surface liberrraaaly withsome flour and some sem olina orcorn meal."

"Steptwo: Formthe doughcutpaaarchment paper to a bakingsheet." (Which I think means, 'form the dough into a loaf and cut a piece of parchment paper to fit a sheet pan.')

The gizmo had no sense of how long each step might take, and continued its litany of orders while the user would likely still be occupied with a previous task. Which explains why people prefer to read recipes as they work.

Unfortunately, with all that flour scattered about the black countertop, the projected text becomes difficult to see, and one must ask the fembot to repeat itself. However, in a kitchen full of noisy, rambunctious brats, there would be little hope of understanding its atonal blather. There is little here beyond an amusing gimmick, though MS seemed rather proud of it.

"One thing that makes people really excited when they come into the Microsoft Home is this idea of being able to use your voice as a tool in the kitchen," MS Senior Director John O'Rourke gushed, with all the reflexive cheer of a summer camp director.

IBM also had a shot at dazzling the gullible, and, like Microsoft, a shot at hard-selling RFID, which the tech, retail and transportation industries are desperate to inflict upon us.

Again, voice synthesizers were used to break the ice. But instead of a talking countertop, IBM demoed a talking iron. And not just a talking iron, but a verbose talking iron that does nothing so much as hit one in the face with the fact that it talks.

"Your eye urn is on a high temperature setting and possibly unattended," it said, where "caution, hot eye urn" would have done nicely.

"Your eye urn is now off. But it's still hot. Please use caution," it went on tonelessly.

Spokesman Bill Bodin of the Internet Home Alliance, a lobbying and advisory outfit dedicated to RFID-chipping and Internet-enabling as much household kit as humanly possible, demonstrated a Net-enabled oven from Whirlpool.

After fiddling with an elaborate series of menus, he succeeded in programming it to bake cookies in his absence. An hour later, he adjusted the program settings remotely with his cell phone, after much additional fiddling. In all, he put a good deal more effort into the exercise than any manual oven would require, with no obvious advantage. One needs only ten minutes to bake cookies, after all.

The message behind both the MS and IBM fantasy kitchens is that industry is determined to find justifications for mass-scale RFID chipping, but hasn't yet come up with an adequate enticement that consumers will accept. Talking countertops, talking irons, and refrigerators and microwave ovens able to identify products are hardly an improvement over the standard models, except for the blind. It would be nice if the thrust behind this research were to make kitchen work more convenient for the blind, but it isn't. It's about treating those of us who can see as if we were blind, selling us expensive solutions to problems we haven't got to justify mass RFID adoption, and calling it progress. ®

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