Cook with your smartphone

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 21, 2013

For 160 years, German cookware company WMF has churned out all manner of stainless-steel pots, knives and cutlery, but it has now officially entered the digital age.

Its ticket is a cooking system which uses heat sensor technology and a smartphone app to help home cooks turn out dishes simply.

A coin-sized sensor embedded in the lid of one of its best-selling Vitalis pots senses the temperature inside it and estimates and adjusts the cooking time needed. Using Bluetooth wireless signals, the pot then pings the cook via his smartphone to add potatoes, tomatoes or whatever ingredient the recipe calls for.

As a result, users will not have to hover over their stoves as their food cooks, but can better use the waiting time to, say, mop the floor or check their e-mail, says the company's spokesman.

The app, which contains a clutch of recipes, also has the added function of helping the company reach a new generation of smartphone users, who are generally not only less kitchen-savvy than the traditional WMF user but also younger. It also opens a communication channel with them through a microsite.

The Cook Assist technology, as it is called, was part of a showcase during a recent trip to Germany for media that was organised by the company.

Unveiled in February this year at the Ambiente consumer goods trade show in Frankfurt, this modern take on kitchenware is now debuting in stores in Germany. For a start, it will be sold only within its domestic market, says Mr Frank Gforer, WMF's managing director for consumer goods.

The 3.5-litre Vitalis pot with the Cook Assist technology costs €269 (S$450), while the 6.5-litre model including the technology costs €299.

Should the technology prove a hit, he intends to take it international, he told those on the media trip.

And WMF Singapore's managing director Volker Buchholz, 34, says Singapore would definitely be one of the target markets. "Just look at the number of smartphones in Singapore. There are more cellphones than people here," he says.

Besides the general tech-savviness of the continent, Asia was also a natural fit because people here tend to prefer the steaming technique of cooking, a key highlight of the Vitalis pot.

However, more development will be required, he adds. Besides translating the program, its recipes will have to be adjusted for Asian tastes.

He says: "For instance, people here prefer their vegetables prepared in a more crispy manner, with more crunch. In Germany, broccoli, for one thing, is cooked until it's much softer."

Digital technology innovations in the kitchen are infrequent but not unheard of. One recent development is a coffee-brewing machine for businesses, where orders are controlled by an iPhone or iPad. The machine was introduced two years ago by Denmark company Scanomat.

Last year, product development company Quirky and GE teamed up to create a prototype named The Milkmaid, a smart milk jug that has pH and temperature sensors to measure when the milk has gone bad. If the milk has soured or is about to be finished, it sends a message to the smartphone with a reminder to buy more.

Quirky said it was unsure when the product would be ready for retail.

While the domestic and European markets continue to be WMF's main money-spinners, it foresees the importance of Asia to its growth.

For instance, Mr Gforer says the company "may even want to set up a design department permanently in a major city in Asia, to get a mixture of the different regions' culture and needs".

The company used to run a factory in Singapore, employing 400 to 500 metal workers to produce cutlery, between 1975 and 2002, but relocated it to China.

In its most recent annual report, it also said that sales in China more than doubled year-on-year, and that "development in the Asian markets in particular was very positive".

The writer's trip was sponsored by WMF.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 21, 2013

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