IDEO Designed a Kitchen-Leftovers Spy Cam, Here’s How

An experimental office prototype makes sure we never miss out on a snack

Published
October 3, 2014
Reading Time
2 minutes

On a recent recruiting trip to MIT, I took a tour of the Media Lab. There’s no shortage of cool things to see there, but what caught my eye was their Food Cam. The idea is simple: there are leftovers in the kitchen all the time, but people only notice them if they happen to wander past or if they see a colleague eating something tasty. So why not have a camera provide a live feed of the spot where food is left when it’s up for grabs, so everybody can know when it’s time to raid the kitchen? Having recently worked on a project that explored embedding sensors and technology into living and working spaces, I was inspired by the Food Cam. I was also itching to learn how to prototype using a Raspberry Pi, so when I returned to IDEO Chicago, I hacked together a very similar version to install in our kitchen, with the addition of a fun little twist to make it our own.

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I took a Raspberry Pi with a camera module and Velcro-ed it right above the kitchen counter where we typically put leftover food. I cobbled together some Python code from various examples I found online so that with the push of a button, the camera takes an image of whatever is on the counter and emails the photo to the whole office.

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The signature twist was making the button wireless by hacking a remote doorbell chime I picked up at the hardware store. Then, in order to give this prototype some personality, I bought a stuffed banana and sewed the remote doorbell button into it. Behold, the BananaCam!  Now, whenever someone leaves leftovers out in the kitchen, they can just squeeze the banana and let the office know exactly what’s on offer. It’s our version of ringing the dinner bell.

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The best part about this was building something in the office just for fun, to see if people would like it enough to use it. As with any prototype, if people like using it, it will stick around. If it’s not that interesting or useful, it will collect dust, parts of it will get lost, and eventually, it will be taken down. We’ll see what happens with the BananaCam.

Everyone here likes to build things, and it’s important that we don’t see the office environment as too precious to tinker with (IDEO’s motto: “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.”). So we’re always experimenting with new technologies and encouraging people to play around and see how they work.

Thanks to my BananaCam collaborators: Garrett Winther, Emily Lam, and Julia Nacsa!