Dinner's A Phone Call Away

GE's "Kitchen of the Future," left, envisions appliances that communicate with each other. The TMIO oven, below, refrigerates food until commanded -- by phone, computer or PDA -- to cook it. (Ge)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006

It took a tough man to make a tender chicken, but it was a hungry father who devised a way to roast the bird while standing on a ball field waiting for his kids to finish practice.

David Mansbery, an Ohio entrepreneur with two sons, invented an Internet-linked oven to get a meal on the table sooner. His "intelligent" appliance refrigerates food until commanded to cook it, by phone, computer or PDA. It's not the only advance in kitchens these days, but it's the only one that qualifies as sci-fi come true.

After more than $10 million and 12 years in development at the TMIO company, the first 200ConnectIo Intelligent Ovens were shipped to distributors this week from a Chattanooga, Tenn., factory. It's a cutting-edge product that hopes to jump-start that beleaguered rite of family life: mealtime.

"We all eat, we all have time problems," Mansbery says. "Appliances have not kept up with changes in our lifestyle."

The TMIO president and chief executive celebrated his first production run by hawking the oven to home builders at the International Builders' Show in Orlando. A demonstration model with brushed stainless steel front and dual-oven capacity is on display through today in a showcase called NextGen Home.

At $8,699, Internet-linked ovens will make their way into luxury developments long before the technology reaches Best Buy. But the central idea -- that supper should be ready when you are -- is so compelling that only a cavalier manufacturer would ignore its pursuit.

Over the cell phone he uses to start chicken roasting at home, Mansbery made remote-control cuisine sound as easy as punching "S" for souffle. There's no complex instruction manual. The oven uses "embedded Web technology" developed for space shuttles, but home chefs don't need degrees in rocket science. They simply prepare the food and put it in the refrigerator-oven to chill. After logging on to a Web site and giving a PIN code, they instruct the oven when to start and how long to cook. They can also tap into recipes -- from the next room or a continent away. Messages can be left on an LCD screen on the oven door. The cooking circuits can be programmed for three days' worth of meals, a feature Mansbery calls Sabbath mode.

Mansbery was in the natural gas drilling and marketing business back in 1994, and developed an indoor baseball academy in Brecksville, Ohio, when he set his sights on an earlier, hassle-free meal.

"I was hungry," he said. "I wasn't getting dinner."

He was also motivated by an observation he attributes to Bill Gates: that kitchens had not progressed. His first prototype was a micro-refrigerator in a microwave. Command technology evolved with help from NASA and Sun Microsystems. In 1998 the oven was unveiled in public. It did not start a digital kitchen revolution.

"The world really was not ready yet," Mansbery says. "We needed other things to happen -- the Internet to develop, cell phones to become popular, wireless technology in the home."

The breakthrough came in 2002 at the annual tech-world convergence known as the Consumer Electronics Show. Techies got the point of the prototype, called Tonight's Menu Intelligent Oven (now shortened to TMIO), and immediately wanted to know where to buy one, Mansbery says. He pushed ahead with a premium dual-wall oven and won an award for innovation at the following year's show.

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