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The kitchen has always been the center of the home -- the place where families gather to eat, talk about their days and work on projects. But some worry that technology may threaten that convergence, dispersing family members within the home by sending Mom and Dad to a home office to do work or emails and the kids to their rooms to do homework and instant message their friends.

New research from Internet Home Alliance, a cross-industry network of leading companies advancing the connected home market, debunks that myth. According to the results of the Alliance's Mealtime Pilot, an eight-month, real-world test of a connected kitchen solution led by Alliance members Whirlpool, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Icebox, Peapod by Stop & Shop and Sears, Roebuck & Co., having broadband Internet access in the kitchen has the effect of bringing family members together and actually increasing the amount and quality of time they spend with one another.

According to the study, which was conducted to determine the degree to which consumers are ready to adopt and use Internet-enabled devices in the kitchen, having Internet access and media entertainment features in the kitchen made being in the kitchen more enjoyable, drawing family members into the kitchen to spend more quality time together. It also enabled parents to better supervise their children's Internet activities, a key concern among today's parents, and to entice family members into lending a hand in preparing meals.

Said one Mealtime participant, "If someone would have told me that technology would have brought my family together, I would have said they were crazy, but it did!"

"This is good news for time-crunched families, and it goes against the traditional view that technology fragments a family at home and reduces the time they spend with one another," said Jurgen Heuer, Director, Connected Home Group, Whirlpool Corporation, which led the pilot team and provided it with Web-enabled Polara refrigerated ranges and refrigerators. "The research shows that a broadband connection in the kitchen, coupled with the devices that allow a family to utilize that connection, play a key role in allowing a family to spend more, not less, quality time together."

"The social influence of broadband connectivity in the kitchen came through loud and clear in the Mealtime Pilot," said Steve Blum, Director, Emerging Home Solutions, Sears, Roebuck & Co., which provided home integration services to the pilot. "The implications of the research are significant for Sears on a variety of levels and will factor into the development of our products and services."

In addition to increasing the amount and quality of time families spent together, participants reported that the Mealtime solution improved the number and nutritional value of their home-cooked meals, reduced the amount of time and effort required to prepare meals and increased the variety of dishes they served.

"(The Mealtime solution) liberated me from the tedious job of meal planning and preparation," said one participant.

In the pilot, consumers managed kitchen and meal preparation tasks from an oven, Web-enabled refrigerator tablet, Web-based entertainment/command center and WAP (wireless application protocol) cell phone, which enabled them to:

-- Program the oven to refrigerate, cook and hold a dish warm for a set mealtime.

-- Adjust or cancel the oven from their cell phone, mobile tablet, Web-enabled entertainment/command center or any other device providing Internet access.

-- Receive text messages on their cell phone from the oven confirming the evening's cooking instructions.

-- Call their oven from their cell phone to see if they forgot to turn off the oven and turn it off from their cell phone.

-- Surf the Internet for recipes and coupons, create shopping lists and print those items or email them to an online grocer for home delivery of groceries.

Following are the other key findings of the pilot, which involved 20 families in the Boston, Massachusetts, area:

-- Participants considered convenient Internet access to be the greatest benefit of Mealtime. Household Internet usage increased in most pilot homes, especially in those with only one PC and/or whose members spent less than 12 hours online in an average week prior to testing Mealtime. Participants appreciated having access to information via the Icebox Flipscreen and Whirlpool Web tablet.

-- The type of centralized Internet access provided by Mealtime enhanced the online grocery shopping experience. With Mealtime, Peapod customers found it easier to check supplies on hand and add items to their online shopping lists. They also said they were less likely than before to forget desired purchases.

-- Most participants said they would "probably" or "definitely" consider purchasing a system like Mealtime in the future.

-- The device used most often was the Icebox Flipscreen, which was perceived by participants to offer the greatest ease-of-use.

"From an HP perspective, the Mealtime project gave us an opportunity to test consumer interest in printing outside of the home office," said Tami Guy, Worldwide Consumer Strategist. "We learned that, if possible, consumers will print in the other rooms, but they'd like to see some changes made to the ID of the product, to make it more functional for that room. For example, if it's for the kitchen, go with a smaller footprint, a splash-proof screen and different color options so that it blends in with the decor, and fits better in the space."

According to the Alliance, following are the important implications of the research to companies in the connected home space:

-- The Mealtime concept resonates with busy consumers. Mealtime effectively helped pilot participants save time and effort in meal planning and preparation. Moreover, it had a number of salutary benefits in terms of family interaction. The Alliance believes the most compelling benefits can be delivered with just networked versions of the Icebox Flipscreen and Whirlpool Polara refrigerated range. The connected kitchen environment may be enhanced by the addition of a kitchen-friendly printer, ideally, one with a small footprint, splash-proofing, off-counter mounting capabilities and designer color options.

-- Ease-of-use is of paramount importance in winning over harried consumers. Pilot participants had a number of device options for accessing and manipulating the Mealtime system. The device used most often -- the Icebox Flipscreen -- was perceived by participants to offer the greatest ease-of-use. The control interface was deemed to be straightforward and intuitive. In addition, using this interface to program the Polara refrigerated range required the fewest steps. The WAP cell phone, on the other hand, was regarded as an inordinately slow and confusing option. The pilot results support the old adage that what's easy to use gets used.

-- If made commercially available, Mealtime should be offered at retail, preferably in home improvement centers or department stores. When asked where they would expect to see Mealtime presented and sold, most participants cited home improvement and department stores. They indicated that these types of retailers would provide the best educational environment and on-going support for a Mealtime-like offering.

"When it comes to digital home products and services, consumers buy, and will continue to buy, solutions," said Tim Woods, vice president, Internet Home Alliance, which managed the study. "That's why collaborative, real-world testing, like our Mealtime pilot, which included companies from across the value chain, sheds so much light on consumer attitudes about the digital home."

About Internet Home Alliance

Internet Home Alliance is a cross-industry network of leading companies advancing the home technology market. A non-profit organization, the Alliance provides companies with the collaboration, research and real-world testing opportunities they need to gain a competitive advantage in the home technology market. Members of the Alliance, which was founded in October 2000, come from a variety of industries and include such leading companies as Cisco Systems Inc., General Motors, Hewlett-Packard Company, IBM, Invensys, Microsoft, Panasonic of North America, Procter & Gamble, SBC Communications, Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Whirlpool Corporation. The Alliance's Pilot Program, of which Mealtime was a part, brings companies from various industries together to test how their products and services will work collectively in connected home solutions. For more information, visit www.internethomealliance.com.

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