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Defrost, cook, send e-mail with this Internet-enabled microwave oven

September 14, 1998
Web posted at 3:15 PM EDT

by Kristi Essick

LISBON, Portugal (IDG) -- If you've dreamed of a machine that can cook a chicken while simultaneously checking your bank balance, then a new prototype device developed by NCR called the Microwave Bank may be what you're looking for.

The microwave oven looks like a regular one, but the catch is that it includes a microprocessor, a specially-designed Web browser and a front door that doubles as a touch screen, said Bill Wright, director of electronic commerce at NCR in London, in an interview here at the European Technology Roundtable Exhibition.

The browser can be used to access certain Internet content tailored for delivery to the microwave's special screen, Wright said. The device also supports voice-recognition technology so that users can speak commands into the microwave, such as "send e-mail," followed by a dictation of the contents of the message.

Some of the Internet-based services NCR is planning for the Microwave Bank include online banking, shopping, e-mail, information services and even access to television programming via the microwave screen, according to a company statement. For example, a user could access an online recipe service, enter in information such as the number of people the meal is for and special dietary requirements, and then be led through a personalized, step-by-step cooking lesson, Wright said. It won't be meant for full-scale Web browsing, but more for accessing certain kinds of content that work well with the limited screen and input technology, he added.

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Other features offered in the prototype include a bar code for scanning products in your kitchen to create a shopping list, which can then be fulfilled automatically by setting up the Microwave Bank to shop for the items at an online supermarket, NCR said. The device can compare prices at several online supermarkets and can arrange for the groceries to be delivered, NCR said. The machine also learns about specific users when they log on, recording information about their browsing and cooking preferences, NCR said. If you go on a diet, for example, the device will note nonfat products that are scanned, and should you scan in regular milk, it'll suggest you try skimmed milk instead.

NCR plans to add security and identification features to the Microwave Bank as well, including iris scanning, fingerprint identification and password protection.

Wright announced the Microwave Bank during a panel session on e-commerce and received mostly chuckles and skeptical remarks in return. Several attendees asked, "Why would anyone want to do online banking on their microwave?"

"This is not Bugs Bunny technology it works," Wright said. "Broaden your mind a minute and realize what delivery methods can be used for e-commerce," he challenged to the audience and fellow panel members.

The Microwave Bank was developed by NCR's U.K.-based Knowledge Lab, a research center aimed at the development of e-commerce products.

However, NCR is the first to admit that it won't commercialize the product any time soon and has no definite plans to get the product into shops.

"We're doing this to prove a point," Wright admitted. "I'm not sure if we'll sell this." The company wants to show people that in the future, e-commerce isn't going to be available just on PCs, set-top boxes and other obvious devices, Wright said. The idea is to target users who do not own a PC; over 70 percent of households in the U.K. still don't have computers, NCR pointed out in the statement.

First of all, the company has to look for partners to provide content services for the device and is currently talking to banks and other companies, Wright said. Barclays Bank in the U.K. has already expressed interest in offering services over the Microwave Bank, NCR said.

Secondly, NCR hasn't figured out exactly the best way to connect the Microwave Bank to the Internet, since having a phone line connected to a microwave in the kitchen isn't exactly ideal. One option is to team with electricity providers, some of which are already exploring the possibility of offering Internet access over the power line infrastructure, NCR said.

Kristi Essick writes for the IDG News Service in Paris.

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