Are self-cleaning surfaces and intelligent worktops a gimmick or culinary must-have?

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The Independent Online

If you thought a hi-tech kitchen meant having a bagel-rack on your toaster, think again. In a mere 10 years, an intelligent kitchen worktop could be giving you advice on the curry you're making, brainstorming salad ideas with you and reminding you to eat that stilton at the back of the fridge. It may sound like wacky Tomorrow's World stuff, and, frankly, a rather undesirable addition to a busy kitchen, but the technology giant Intel is betting on kitchenware becoming one of the next big things in computing. Over the past year it has devoted some of the best minds in its research units into developing just such a kitchen worktop. It's called the Oasis. Among more conventional computer whizzery, it was one of the prototype products debuted last month at its Research@Intel Day in Silicon Valley.

And it's not just Intel who rate it; Ikea has fingered the intelligent worktop as one of the key products in the company's vision for the kitchen of 2040, "Future Kitchens": it is also imagining 3-D food printers, which create meals from their constituent molecules, self-cleaning surfaces and the integration of gaming into cooking. And holograms of celebrity chefs who will talk you through recipes.

The trick of the Oasis worktop is that it projects its touchscreen rather than requiring a big, expensive, built-in one. The attached 3-D cameras are the sci-fi bit – able to detect gestures, register your commands and recognise objects placed on the work surfaces. Plonk a steak on it, and it will pull up cooking instructions and a nice recipe with mustard.

With the dawning of an age when a hologram of Gordon Ramsey will instruct us how to print out the beans on toast, and the worktop suggests we eat some vitamin C while giving us Facebook updates, it's perhaps time to sit back and take the long view of what kitchens are really for. And how we can incorporate technology without making our kitchens look like the control centre of the starship Enterprise, or a multimedia entertainment zone.

Henrietta Thompson, the interiors editor of Wallpaper* magazine, has a basic principle for kitchen design. "Kitchens are for cooking in. A lot of designers forget this, because today a kitchen is also the hub of the home, meaning that other concerns – living and receiving guests – get priority. A good kitchen addresses these functions in that order. It is hygienic and adaptable, has ample storage space and everything is easily accessible. It should be a pleasure to be in and a pleasure to use," she says.

One of the first challenges to a kitchen designer is incorporating the appliances and gadgets that we need into stylish and ergonomic rooms. We love kitchen gadgets: they help us poach salmon, make tomato bread and waffles, but the risk of a gadget-filled kitchen is clutter. How does a designer fit it all in?

One option is the approach favoured by the kitchen design company Bulthaup, which tends to design kitchens in blocks, with appliances sitting flush behind smooth metal or stone surfaces. Sinead Williams, a Bulthaup designer, explains: "We see intelligent kitchens as more functional – with many appliances, aesthetic materials and ergonomic functionality. We tend to avoid gadgets which can be un-environmental (expensive to run) and require a lot of servicing. Pocket doors and integrating appliances so they are hidden within the furniture is currently the most popular way to present a kitchen."

So dishwashers are in, but waffle-makers are out, or, at least, out of sight. One Bulthaup solution is the "tool-box" or "gadget shelf" where a slide-up panel conceals a shelf-full of plugged-in and ready-to-use gadgets.

A more traditional approach is taken by the Somerset-based furniture designer Luke Haughton who spends a lot of his time fitting panels of beech and cherrywood over dishwashers and fridges, though even he makes some concessions to gadgetry. On one occasion he was commissioned to design a pop-up platform for a blender that rises out of a hole in the work surface: "If you use the blender all the time then you might as well leave it out," he said "and if you don't use it that often, then it's quite easy just to take it out of the cupboard."

Thompson offers some advice on when technology is a useful addition to a kitchen and when it's a gimmick.

"Technology should be largely invisible and functional and helpful," she says. "A drawer with such a smooth mechanism that it makes you go 'Ooh' every time you use it is great. A touch-panel hob which just gets greasy and unresponsive is frustrating."

As the new wave of smarter, wi-fi-connected white goods hit the market, Ikea has its own predictions for how designers will work new technology into liveable spaces. In this brave new age of customisation it foresees customers designing their own furniture. So, in 2040, you won't be just assembling the bookshelf by yourself, you'll be designing it too...

"The kitchen must be customisable," it says, "and new forms of fabrication and design are key to this. Informed by the social trends of ultra-convenience and participatory culture, personalisation of the future kitchen will be a prerequisite for consumers.

"Design-your-own will be a standard option. Designers will leave products unfinished for users to complete, modularising product development for users to apply their personal touch." Ikea also think we'll want our kitchens to be social places where we enjoy "face-time" with our loved ones, as an alternative to the hours spent in virtual space.

"By 2040, communal spaces – whether within the home or the wider community – will be prioritised, as the need for real-time interaction becomes commonplace. The kitchen will have to provide new forms to enhance this connectivity, both real and virtual, via an inviting environment, adaptable both to sole users' preferences and the varied needs of a group gathering. Features like LED-light projections and aromatherapy-infused walls will all cultivate the intimacy people yearn for."

Maybe the hologram chefs could give you a cuddle too?

Back to the key function of a kitchen: making food. It's not always the most complicated appliances that are the most useful. The Michelin-starred chef Sat Bains has a kitchen with water baths, a centrifuge and three-horse-power blenders, but one of his favourite kitchen tools is a grater commonly available in Lakeland.

"A great tool could be anything. A microplane is a grater you can buy for about £20 and they're incredible – it has got very sharp micro-teeth so if you use it on parmesan. Sometimes the simplest things are the most beautiful."

Thompson agrees and has a word of warning for Intel: "When technology is applied to mechanics it can work really well. But digital technology, in its search for the killer app, sometimes overlooks whether the need is there in the first place. And that's when you get gadgets like toasters reading the weather reports.

"A good kitchen should last well. The best kitchens to me are those in which memories and good times are etched in the surfaces – they improve with age."

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