The British aren’t famous for creativity in the kitchen. But last September a London-based team of researchers struck a blow against this cultural clich. They didn’t introduce a new cuisine, however; they came up with a new kind of cooker. Dubbed the “Microwave Bank” by its creators, the prototype looked much like a standard countertop microwave, with one big difference: a computer screen where the door window ought to be. Voice recognition software and touch-screen technology allowed users to send e-mail, pay bills, access their bank accounts or watch TV. A built-in barcode scanner automatically added items to an electronic grocery list. Resident intelligent agents kept track of a user’s domestic habits and then suggested dishes or looked up recipes online. And it even cooked food.
The launch of the Microwave Bank drew an impressive amount of attention from the UK press, and marked the very public debut of the prototype’s developer, the Knowledge Lab. Set up in September 1996 by the Financial Solutions Group of Dayton, Ohio-based NCR-the world’s leading supplier of ATMs-the Knowledge Lab boasts an eclectic mix of twenty- and thirtysomething staffers. Computer scientist works alongside technical engineer, artist, jewelry designer, graphics/industrial designer, biophysicist, mathematician, economist, psychologist and philosopher. The 25-member team’s mission is broad: focus on tomorrow’s consumer. Or, as the Knowledge Lab’s glossy launch brochure declared: “To create foresight-to get a grasp of the future before it happens. To start to lead the way in challenging established assumptions.” Housed in a stylish open-plan studio space in central London, the lab is separated from Financial Solutions’ reception by a wall of frosted glass, perforated with portholes to give visitors a glimpse of this future.
The Knowledge Lab’s director, neuroscientist Stephen Emmott, sums up the lab’s fundamental focus within the rather loose bounds set by its parent company with two words: relationship technology. “The context for everything we do is the networked economy,” Emmott says, “and the central purpose of networks is to establish and maintain relationships.”
The relationships that interest Emmott and his lab are those between consumer and consumer and between consumer and supplier-the demands and preferences of the consumer and how the supplier serves and stimulates these demands. By exploring and exploiting these relationships, NCR hopes to find ways to reposition itself after a troubled time in the 115-year-old company’s history. And in setting up the lab, NCR has forged unusual relationships of its own, recruiting its own customers (banks) to help fund and advise the new center and even contribute their research to its projects-much as MIT’s Media Lab is funded through its relationship with technology firms. The verdict is still out on how successful this project will be. While observers express praise for the lab’s boldness, they also voice skepticism about the originality of some of its ideas. And some question whether the ultimate aim of the lab is more PR than R&D.