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Survey offers taste of tomorrow's kitchen

Americans like having Internet access in the kitchen, but not necessarily to help them cook and eat.

We'll buy our own milk, thank you very much, but it would be handy to check our e-mail from the kitchen.

That's the upshot of a newly compiled survey by the Internet Home Alliance, which found that a majority of consumers like the idea of broadband access in the kitchen. But instead of "smart" refrigerators that keep track of what you're eating, folks just want to be able to do basic tasks such as checking e-mail.

The Alliance's Mealtime study, conducted in conjunction with Whirlpool, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Icebox, Peapod and Sears, supplied 20 Boston-area families with the latest Internet gadgets to see how they were used in real-life situations.

The main theme was that people appreciated Internet access in the kitchen as a convenient way to do the same type of tasks they'd do in the den, said Jurgen Heuer, director of Whirlpool's Connected Home, not as a way to revolutionize cooking and other kitchen-specific tasks.

"It's a point-of-consumption thing," he said. "It's more convenient to do a lot of things in the kitchen because that's where people spend time...If you're have a discussion with your kids in the kitchen and need to look up something at Wikipedia, its nice to be able to do that without leaving the room."

More complex tasks, such as remote control of appliances over the Internet, didn't turn out be so popular, Heuer said. Even some fairly obvious food tasks didn't go over big.

"They looked up recipes less often than we thought," Heuer said. "We learned what it means to ask people to change habits. To ask people to change the way they prepare food and eat is very difficult; it's very close to the skin."

The most popular kitchen gadget turned out to be Salton's Icebox, a basic Web-surfing appliance, but testers also liked a tablet-style PC that plugged into the refrigerator for recharging. Touchscreens turn out to be well-suited for the kitchen, Heuer said.

"One of the things that stuck me was that nobody complained about the technology being too difficult to use," he said. "What it means is that if you package high tech in the right way, the technology becomes kind of irrelevant to people."