Food + HCI

I am devoting a large part of my research this semester to investigating the world of Food + HCI. I don't know exactly where this will take me, but I do know there are a lot of interesting things happening in the food tech industry, which has major implications for the way we make, distribute, eat, and think about food.

One of the reasons I am so interested in exploring food is that it's suddenly become a "problem" that Silicon Valley feels compelled to "solve." But so far, much of the technology related to food is aimed at making cooking easier or shopping more convenient, and (unsurprisingly) it's mostly aimed at those who can afford to pay more to simplify shopping and cooking. But, what I find most troubling about so much food technology is an underlying desire to make perfect food. Take a look at Drop's copy to see what I mean: "Making sure everything comes out fantastic, and outrageously delicious, means you need to get a lot right. From finding a great recipe in the first place, to not blowing the measurements, substitutions, timing and calculations along the way. As your trusty digital baking assistant, Drop is there by your side to make sure everything goes smoothly, precisely and according to plan."

Drop may very well be a useful tool. As a baker myself, I am intrigued by the possibilities of what this scale might do for me, and yet I wonder if this device actually takes the learned knowledge and skill out of baking. I learned, over time (and through many failed attempts) how to bake, but everything about Drop seems to be about ensuring that you don't fail. And it does so by limiting what you can do. This scale has no concept of a "pinch" of salt or a "dash" of cinnamon. Those are "measurements" that a scale can't understand, and which can only be learned through practice. Baking is a skill that requires a lot of sensory knowledge, such as knowing how bread dough feels different from cupcake batter. Getting that perfect shade of golden brown on a batch of cookies doesn't just take 12 minutes; it takes a baker's intuitive sense that the cookies are done. There is value in learning through doing, even if that means not following a recipe, and even if it means failure.  

Just the other day a friend of mine referred to this phenomenon of perfect food as the "Martha-Stewarting of DIY." Indeed, DIY and maker movements have become increasingly prettified over the years. I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing; after all not everyone who wants to make stuff wants to get dirty. And I gotta say, I get a tremendous amount of joy out of creating the perfect lemon square. A yet this trend of perfection works against some of the basic qualities of food. A lot of food (say, sourdough starter or yogurt) is pretty gross looking. Gardening is a sweaty, messy ordeal. Yet, most of what we eat is beautiful, and beautifully packaged. There is something interesting in this tension, and something I hope to explore more this semester.

But this mentality of making things that are perfect, things that don't fail, is driving a lot of new food tech. Here's an example of something I find particularly intriguing: Niwa, an indoor growing system that connects to an app on your phone. 

I am extremely sympathetic to the underlying problem that Niwa is trying to address (how does one garden in urban spaces with no yard?) and I for one would love to be able to have a garden in my apartment. But, is this a garden? There's no dirt. No need for the sun or a watering can. This technology removes the sensory experience of being out in the garden. In other words, Niwa takes the gardening out of gardening. What fun is growing your own food, when you aren't actually doing any of the growing? But perhaps more importantly, how can we get a sense of where food comes from (the ground!) if this is how we experience growing food? As a culture, we are quite removed from our food and its processing and distribution, and Niwa is inadvertently perpetuating this problem. Although, I do applaud the effort to get organic produce directly in one's home. Think of all the environmental damage that occurs simply from moving produce from the farm to the store to the table. And yet, I have a deep sense that there has to be a better way to connect people to homegrown food. 

There are so many food issues that designers could (and definitely should!) tackle. From food production and distribution to cooking methods and tools to taste, flavor, and eating experiences, it's a terribly exciting time to be at the intersection of food and tech! And so I am especially excited about this semester's research. Here are a few things that I find particularly inspiring:  

Hack // MeatA Food + Tech Connect event that brings together engineers, designers, nonprofits, and an assortment of techies. Take a look at some of the winning hacks.  

Hack // Dining: From the same folks as above, a hackathon devoted to the future of food, which claims to be "about creating real solutions, not just nifty apps." Let's hope so.

Momofuko Culinary LabA research facility that is dedicated to exploring the origins of flavor and brings together scientists and chefs from a variety of traditions.

Science + Food at UCLA: A group of scientists and engineers at the UCLA Division of Life Sciences and Department of Integrative Biology & Physiology.

Eat, Cook, Grow: Mixing Human-Computer Interaction with Food-Human Interactions: The first book on my reading list :)

Food is the source and solution to many of the world's problems. I truly believe in the power of food to heal and hurt, perhaps more than almost anything else on earth. But it's also a deeply cultural phenomenon. The way we think about food and interact with it is a profoundly important part of our experience. Technology and design have always played a large role in our food lives, from agricultural practices to domestic technologies, we are surrounded by devices that influence our relationship to food. I'm only two weeks into the semester, and I've already got a million ideas bouncing around in my head. Like I said, it's an exciting time for us foodie tech folks.