For the past four months, I’ve learned to operate in silence, moving about my house like a ninja. I pick up and put down each and every item as if it’s a delicate wine glass. Because if I don’t, I might not get any sleep.
I live with a baby now — which, among other things, means food has become a problem. Cooking makes a lot of noise. Time spent in the kitchen to create complicated meals, with their sizzling oils and clanking pans, has flown out the window in favor of takeout and things I can whip together in relative silence. Last week I actually went outside my house to remove Chinese food containers from a noisy plastic bag. Better to weird out my neighbors than mess with nap time.
It won’t be like this forever, but having a baby has kindled my love for silent, efficient gadgets, of which there are few in the kitchen — save the oven. Nearly everything else in my house beeps and bloops with reckless abandon. It makes the act of simply twisting a dial and walking away seem attractive by comparison. Turns out I’m not the only one with a fondness for this particular appliance; a team of engineers in San Francisco like it, too. They just think most ovens have become dated. So they’ve spent the better part of two years building June, a slightly crazy high-tech oven that has enough computing horsepower to run Half-Life 2.
June is not a gaming rig, but has all the trappings of a powerful computer. It’s a microwave-sized countertop oven with a 5-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi, a quad-core Nvidia Tegra K1 processor, a high-definition camera that’s protected behind insulated glass, and a single control dial that’s its only real physical button. Paired with six carbon-fiber heating elements and a set of convection fans, it promises not only to cook items up to a 12-pound turkey in size, but to figure out what you’re making within a second or two of sticking a dish onto its racks. It’s a neat parlor trick, but also one the company is trying to combine with an estimation of each dish’s typical cooking time so that it’s harder to screw up your meal.
"Right now we are experts in steak, chicken, white fish, salmon, bacon, cookie dough, brownie mix, toast, bagels, and hamburger buns," says June’s co-founder and CEO, Matt Van Horn, adding that the company plans to expand what the oven can identify over time with software updates.
An oven that recognizes your food
To accomplish the magic trick, June has a camera system built into the very top of the oven that pulls double duty. It’s running computer vision algorithms on your dishes to identify them, but it also lets you check in on what’s happening inside your oven with your tablet or smartphone. How does it tell the difference between two pieces of meat that look nearly the same? It’s all about the tiny details, says June’s co-founder and CTO, Nikhil Bhogal. "Natural foods all have micro-textures, which look different upon closer inspection," he tells me. "With pork versus beef, they both have different-looking fat patterns. That’s what we train the computer to do."
That system is combined with some juggling of the fans and heating elements to cook food in specific ways. Pop two sides of a bagel in, and the camera figures out not only that it’s a bagel, but also which side is up. It then adjusts its six heating coils and two fans to make the tops crispy and the bottoms a little softer. The same system works with June’s program for a roasted chicken so that it will blast the top of the dish at the very end of cooking to make sure the skin is crispy while the rest of the bird isn’t overcooked. The company is trying to build these kinds of programs itself, but also plans to let users program their own special cooking cycles on their phones and tablets, These can be shared with other June owners so you can begin to crowdsource ideal cooking patterns.
Bhogal was most recently at Path building its iOS app, but previously spent five years at Apple working on its camera technologies. "If you’ve ever taken a picture or recorded a video, done FaceTime, or taken a panorama, you’ve used a lot of my code," he says. He left Path with Van Horn near the end of 2013, and the pair has been working on this ever since. Along the way, they’ve raised $7 million in funding led by the Foundry Group, and hired 22 engineers — about half of whom were previously at Apple. June is headquartered in a house in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights neighborhood. Van Horn says the spot was picked almost immediately for its massive and well-furnished kitchen, which has become the main testing area. They’ve also assembled a makeshift lab on the second floor where other prototypes are being trained to recognize food.
On my visit, I don’t have a chance to see June differentiate between a porterhouse and a pork chop. Instead, I witness a batch of cookies being made. Van Horn slides a small sheet pan of dough balls into a June prototype. The oven’s software is still a little buggy, he warns, but seconds later a small screen on the oven’s front screen pops up to alert us that it’s figured out we’ve loaded it with cookies; we just need to hit a button to confirm it. We do, and the oven comes to life, emitting a small, dull whoosh of fans while a glowing circle pops up that will let us know how much time is left.
Cooking probes measure internal temperature
As the cookies slowly melt into glossy puddles, Bhogal and Van Horn wax poetic about the things they’ve done with June that differ from most ovens. There’s a built-in scale, which helps the oven identify dishes and set cook times; it also zeroes out its own mass, letting you weigh anything set on top of it. There are two plugs in the top of the oven doorway for a pair of cooking probes (which are included), so that you can monitor the internal temperature of something like a steak or a roast. The oven has also been designed with an air gap nearly all the way around that manages to keep every side fairly cool to the touch. Likewise, the front has been designed with three panes of glass and a ventilated air curtain to keep people from accidentally burning themselves while fiddling with its touchscreen controls and selector knob. I’m invited to press my hand up on the glass mid-bake, and sure enough, it barely registers above room temperature. Inside, the cookies are roasting at 350 degrees.
"You can put it on the island and not worry about kids being around it, or accidentally touching it when it’s hot," Bhogal says. "It’s happened to me. That was one of the motivations to fix [ovens]."
The pair acknowledges that with a just a cubic foot of space (which tops out with the aforementioned 12-pound turkey) and $1,495 price tag, it’s not for everyone. But they believe they’ve brought a number of professional-grade features (mainly the probes and high-end heating elements) down to something that costs far less and is easier to use.
"We feel that this small space works for 80 percent of these cases that have a small family," Bhogal says. "If you’re making six cookies for dessert for a family of three or four, you don’t need to fire up a 5-cubic-foot oven just to do that. With constant use, this will work out to be much better, energy- and money-wise." And after biting into one of our stunt cookies, the idea of being able to make more of these on a whim sounds nice.
Coming to everyone next spring
There’s still the question of making an expensive kitchen investment with an unknown appliance company. Warranties and customer service turn out to be vital, as recently highlighted by the horror story of one New York Times writer who went through five months of hell to get one well-rated Samsung oven fixed. June says it’s still working out the details on its warranty and service plans. It has a while to do that: today it’s taking preorders with a $95 deposit, and has plans to ship initial models to an early batch of owners in the fall. A mass-produced version aimed at everyone else will follow next spring.
At least one thing has been assured to me in the meantime: people who don’t like beepy kitchen appliances can turn off all of June’s sounds. Even so, you may still clang and rattle pans along the way. Technology can’t fix everything.