It's a sad reality that innovation in the world of appliances is somewhat rare. Concepts like the Samsung Waterwall and the LG TwinWash are, of course, refreshing, and GE's FirstBuild factory keeps surprising us with clever time-saving inventions. And then there's the whole smart home revolution, which is slowly changing the very way we interact with our appliances.
Still, compared to other tech categories, appliance innovation proceeds at a glacial pace. That's why we were so excited to see one NASA engineer's rethinking of the age-old microwave oven, which is perhaps one of the most technologically stale products in the home.
Mark Rober first stirred the internet back in 2011 when he used two iPads and some techno-trickery to create this ridiculously clever Halloween costume. Now the former NASA engineer is setting his sights on the world of appliances, and if online reaction is any indication, it seems the first time's a charm.
In order to solve the problem of unevenly heated food, Rober placed a thermal camera in his microwave and plastered the front with an LCD screen to display the heat map. By viewing the image produced by the camera, the idea goes, you can then maneuver and heat the food until it's uniformly cooked. It's a brilliant and effective solution to a problem that anyone who's ever owned a microwave can appreciate.
But to be totally honest, we're a bit skeptical—at least regarding its commercial implications.
Scientifically, the concept is sound. Provided it's placed behind leaded glass or a dense shielding surface, there's no reason why a thermal camera or infrared lens couldn't be installed in a microwave and still function properly. Similarly, an LCD could theoretically be placed on the front of the microwave to display the thermal image. Considering microwaves already have protective shielding in place, that shouldn't be a problem.
The real issue is the cost. Thermal cameras have gotten more affordable in recent years, but they're still not cheap or practical enough to appeal to most consumers. Microwaves, on the other hand, are very convenient and relatively cheap. Adding the price of a thermal camera—not to mention an LCD screen—to that of a standard microwave oven turns the whole purchase into a serious investment.
Another concern is the accuracy of the heat map. Thermal cameras, while awesome, can only record the surface temperature of objects. Anyone who has experienced the horror of biting into a Hotpocket—piping hot on the outside, frozen solid on the inside—knows microwaved food should be approached with extreme caution. Through his research, Rober says he's found externally heated food tends to be heated throughout, but a glance through our own microwave test data seems to contradict that finding.
It's also worth pointing out that the technology needed to accurately determine when food is evenly and thoroughly cooked already exists. While most microwaves make use of steam sensors, which are imprecise, many high-end machines feature advanced, highly accurate sensors that check for aromatic particles and chemical changes caused by cooking. Yes, they're expensive, but probably not as much as a microwave with a pre-installed thermal camera.
Don't get us wrong, this is a really cool concept. Anything that further shames inaccurate microwave sensors is good in our book, and if you're really stoked about the idea you should go and sign Rober's Better Microwave petition. We just think it's going to be while before technology like this turns up at your local big box store.