- GE’s Ecomagination initiative has been a tremendous success at the industrial scale, but they turned to Frog Design to bring it to the consumer market. Photo: Frog Design
We can all save a fair amount of energy by changing our lightbulbs, and making sure our appliances aren’t sucking power when they’re turned off. But what could we do if we fundamentally remade how our kitchen gadgets work? GE turned to Frog to figure it out. “We could have done anything from trying to design a better lightbulb to imagining a nuclear-powered consumer product,” says Jonas Damon, creative director at Frog. Ultimately, Frog bypassed the opportunity to design a countertop Chernobyl in favor a kitchen gadget called EcoSwitch that combines the functionality of a tea kettle, slow cooker, hot plate, and blender into a single, energy-efficient package.
An all-in-one kitchen gadget might sound more like a tacky SkyMall tchotchke than an eco-innovation, but unlike other solutions that bodge together half a dozen different devices, EcoSwitch is all about streamlining. Damon’s team noticed that blenders, hot pots, and coffee makers each had their own plastic housings and power supplies, but at their core they either heated a vessel or rotated it.
By combining a single motor and a high-efficiency induction heating coil with a selection of purpose built containers, EcoSwitch is able to replace half-a-dozen gadgets that crowd tiny kitchens. Fewer appliances plugged into the wall means less energy lost to phantom load and a single device reduces the amount of raw materials that are wasted.
Scarred from using the Byzantine interfaces of combined printer/scanner/fax machines, the team approached the design of the EcoSwitch UI with some trepidation. “None of us were that excited about an all-in-one design because it usually means they do a lot of things poorly and nothing really great,” says Damon. After dozens of concepts and prototypes the team developed the elegant solution of embedding RFID chips in the various pots and accessories that sit on the EcoSwitch base station.
When a blender is placed on the base, an OLED display comes to life and shows only blender controls. Replace it with a hotpot and heat controls appear. “EcoSwitch doesn’t have menus and redundant dials,” says Damon. “We’re taking the burden off the user—it does the thinking for you.”
The UI is forward looking, but the kettles, blenders, and other accessories designed for EcoSwitch reference familiar archetypes to make the device seem approachable and familiar. “It’s a new experience and we didn’t want to overload users with unfamiliar aesthetics,” says Damon. The glossy black and polished metal base station is meant to mirror contemporary kitchen decor as well as the MacBooks that Frog’s target users see every day.
Other designers have approached this problem, breaking kitchen appliances down into a Lego-like kit of parts, pairing them with responsive apps, or making them pull double duty as manufacturing equipment, but EcoSwitch is the first implementation that makes the concept seem like a viable commercial strategy.
EcoSwitch has obvious limitation—for instance, you can’t prepare your coffee and eggs simultaneously, never mind a seven course meal. However, Frog designed the product with dorm rooms and micro-apartments with kitchens the size of closets in mind.
In fact, while it may look like a high-tech hotplate, Damon thinks the concept has broader applicability. One idea his team considered was a fan attachment that could use the motor to cool a tiny apartment in the summer or pair with the heating element to create a space heater in the winter. “It’s a platform. It’s not just for cooking,” he says. “GE could open this tech up to hacker spaces and license the technology to other companies who could invent new functions.”