For those old enough to remember The Jetsons, a TV cartoon which originally aired in the 1960s and ran through the 1980s, one of the most important aspects of this fictional utopia set in the year 2062 was the fact that work was cut down to the bare minimum. George Jetson worked a mere hour a day, two days a week, while his wife Jane, an oddly traditional hausfrau, is handily assisted by Rosie the Robot. Best of all, there's no work involved in eating as imagined by the creators of this cartoon set in Orbit City; Jane simply presses a few buttons on the kitchen computer and out pops a steaming meal.

Now, two scientists at MIT have re-introduced this concept of 'digital gastronomy' made familiar in The Jetsons — and almost a full 50 years ahead of time as imagined by that cartoon — by designing three prototypes of kitchen... shall we say equipment? collectively referred to as 'Cornucopia.'

Design Space

The vision of gastronomy, the practice of preparing, cooking, serving, and eating good food, as predicted by The Jetsons did not arise out of a vacuum. Around the same time the cartoon was created, the food industry was quietly being revolutionized by the mass-production of new products that changed not only the way food was produced, but also how it was distributed, stored, and used. Many of these changes, such as mass production of the refrigerator, began after World War II but gained speed during the 1950s and 1960s with one result: Americans have been cooking progressively less since these changes began.

According to a 2010 Harris Interactive survey, 41 percent (about three out of five) Americans say they prepare meals at home five or more times a week while three in 10do so three to four times a week and 11 percent say they rarely or never prepare meals at home. Parsing the statistics further, it is only 33 percent of those aged 18-33 who cook at home five or more times per week; younger Americans cook less then older Americans.

Along with these general trends in the evolution of cooking, one can also consider the more rarified experience of cutting edge developments in the kitchen as exemplified by pioneering chefs. For instance, Chef Ferran Adria greatly advanced the idea of molecular gastronomy, a type of modernist cuisine, at El Bulli, formerly a restaurant and now a foundation. Provocative and experimental, the controversial much-reviewed Catalan restaurant once served lengthy multi-course meals to about 8,000 people per year, while reported requests for reservations ran as high as 1,000,000 per year.

Adria's molecular gastronomy incorporated unique chemicals and science lab-esque equipment to change a food's basic characteristics, including textures, aromas, and flavors. As reported in, making use of concepts in physics, chemistry, and engineering, he deconstructed (as he prefers to say) food preparation in order to create a cuisine that included foams and liquid spheres and provided a new sensual experience. Confronting his molecular gastronomy for the first time, most people described it as synthetic and unnatural, yet all the chemicals used are based in biology, while the equipment simply offers more precise ways of either freezing or heating food.

Similarly, scientists Amit Zoran and Marcelo Coelho are now experimenting with kitchen methodology. In a paper published by MIT press, the two scientists push the conceptual investigation of food to a new level. Central to their vision is "the creation of a new design space that goes beyond the experience of taste to encompass all aspects of gastronomy-visualizing the way we can manipulate food digitally," wrote the authors. In short, they are attempting to advance the art of 'mixing, modeling, and transforming' food by envisioning a new design space — the kitchen.

Specifically, the authors have conceptualized three prototypes: the Virtuoso Mixer, the Digital Fabricator, and the Robotic Chef.

Manipulation And Fabrication

As described by Coelho's website, the Robotic Chef is a mechanical arm that can physically and chemically transform a single solid food object, such as a piece of fish or a fruit. As described, this odd equipment sounds like the marriage of a food processor and spice rack, incorporating as it does both a series of 'mineral and spice injection syringes' as well as a 'toolhead.' Meanwhile, the Virtuoso Mixer allows a chef to 'quickly design, produce and evaluate (by tasting) several ingredient combinations.' Finally, the Digital Fabricator is a "personal, three-dimensional printer for food," akin to a combination refrigerator/stove.

"Its cooking process starts with an array of food canisters, which refrigerate and store a user's favorite ingredients. These are piped into a mixer and extruder head that can accurately deposit elaborate food combinations with sub-millimeter precision," the authors wrote in their paper. The food is heated or cooled by the Digital Fabricator while deposition takes place, and this process 'not only allows for the creation of flavors and textures that would be completely unimaginable through other cooking techniques, but, through a touch-screen interface and web connectivity, also allows users to have ultimate control over the origin, quality, nutritional value and taste of every meal.'

Although this revision of the contemporary kitchen is inspired by the digital design and fabrication revolution that is currently being experienced and furthered in the areas of industrial design and architecture, it also is founded in issues of public health.

The Mother Of Invention?

"One need not look very far to see how the mass production and distribution of food has led to increased obesity and generalized health issues," wrote the authors. Perceived as a dangerous process when not well-designed, gastronomy (food technology) as it currently and unthinkingly exists has not yet harnessed the full power and ability of advanced processes to broaden the connection between people and food. By combining digital fabrication technologies and food, the authors suggest, we can — and should — retain the freshness of ingredients, increase the potential for creative expression, and appropriately advance kitchen technologies to the current digital age. In fact, it is only a matter, the authors suggest, of conceptualizing and designing the available techniques in a networked and collaborative fashion.

"As in many cases in the history of technology, the path from vision to working technology is, in fact, shorter than we might think," concluded the authors.

Source: Zoran A, Coelho M. Cornucopia: The Concept of Digital Gastronomy. MIT Press. 2013.