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Tom Schueneman headshot

Microwave 2.0: A Study in Emotionally Durable Design

When Marshall Jamshidi, a student at the Savannah Institute of Art and Design, heard about the Design for Your Product Lifetime student design challenge sponsored by AutodeskiFixit and Core77, redesigning the microwave oven didn’t jump to mind at first. Nonetheless, his interest in the idea of sustainable product design was piqued, and eventually his focus turned to the staid, ubiquitous microwave oven.

“So much talk of sustainability is focused on making the materials and are they recyclable, assuming it’s a very short product lifecycle," Jamshidi said in a recent interview. "That’s just how we live these days.” As Jamshidi considered the short lifecycle for products in our throwaway culture, he saw the microwave as endemic to that culture.

“There are landfills full of microwaves that are still functioning,” he says, “yet they were disposed of. That is what really interested me about going to the microwave, in terms of making a product that you really love and want to keep and you like better than something new in the store... the microwave is not that at all.”
And therein Jamshidi had his challenge. Not only designing a microwave oven that is easy to maintain and mechanically durable but also “emotionally durable” as well. “How would you want the microwave you have versus the new one in the store?” With this question in mind, Jamshidi set out to design Microwave 2.0 and win the student challenge.

Microwave 2.0

"I've always thought that the microwave was due for some kind of redesign. They're really similar since they came out in the 1950s. The interface has changed a little bit, but not in any great or useful way."
One reason so many working microwaves end up in landfills is, as Jamshidi puts it, they just get too gross. Trying to clean the inside of a typical microwave just seems to end up as an act of futility. No matter how hard you try, there’s that “yellow odor” that comes with a well-used microwave. An odor that eventually can’t be washed out. So the tendency is to just throw it out.

“The first thing you have to do,” says Jamshidi, "is get rid of that emotional component where you dislike the thing because it’s unpleasant.” So why not make the inside easy to clean? Jamshidi accomplishes this by using ceramic inner panels that quickly slide in and out for washing and keeping Microwave 2.0 fresh and "like new." Since the panels are also replaceable, that "newness" need never wear off.

Repairable and less energy consumption

The high-voltage magnetrons that traditionally produce microwaves in typical microwave ovens consume a lot of power and make it one of the most dangerous home appliances to repair. High voltage and high current is potentially present in these components even when the oven is unplugged.

Microwave 2.0 takes advantage of recent solid-state microchip technology using low-voltage, integrated circuits to generate microwaves, eliminating the need for high voltage transformers and capacitors. These integrated circuits use less energy and are modular for easier and safer replacement should they ever fail. Incorporating these internal components with a user-friendly diagnostic program enables repairs, guiding the user in a step-by-step process similar to clearing a paper jam in a printer.

Emotionally durable design: Getting to know you

One of Jamshidi's favorite aspects of designing Microwave 2.0 was envisioning how the device can "get to know" its user through onboard microchip technology. A traditional microwave is, for many users including myself, somewhat reminiscent of the "flashing 12:00" syndrom of old VCRs. Programming them or using the "extra features" is often more trouble then it is worth to figure out.
"That really gets down to what I love about trying to design for a lifetime, which is how to make it emotionally durable, not just physically durable."
Jamshidi refers to Jonathan Chapman's work on sustainable design, noting that Chapman advocates how design should allow our products to "evolve with us, like a favorite pair of old blue jeans" - the longer you have them, the better you like them. It was with this in mind that Jamshidi designed into Microwave 2.0 the concept of a "visual algorithm" combined with an onboard camera to record and learn your food preferences. It not only gets to know what sort of food you like, it helps you cook it by using a thermal imaging system and its computing power to direct microwaves where they are most needed, taking out much of the guesswork on how long to "nuke" your food. Instead, the food is evenly cooked and ready to enjoy. The longer you use the microwave, the better it knows what you typically eat and how best to cook it for you. Just like that old pair of blue jeans, Jamshidi's concept is to develop an emotional bond between user and product.

Looking for engineering collaborators

Jamshidi credits Autodesk's Sketchbook app and their Sustainability Workshop for helping him flesh out his ideas for Microwave 2.0.  "Using Sustainability Workhop directly instructed me and informed me and educated me," he says.   Working with these tools and general design concepts, Jamshidi has envisioned a whole new way for consumers to interact and use a product that essentially hasn't changed. One that, until now, typifies our throwaway culture.

Jamshidi's next step is taking Microwave 2.0 from winning concept to consumer reality. He hopes to secure grants for prototyping Microwave 2.0 and finding engineers interested in collaborating on the development of Microwave 2.0 (perhaps you?).

Ending the cycle of "product flings"

For Jamshidi, Microwave 2.0 is really about designing a product for emotional durability, moving past the idea of getting something new, just because it is new, not necessarily better.
"...just getting a new one because you don't care so much about it. When you do care about something... as you hold on to something longer and longer, you're actually not giving up something. You're actually gaining more because you have emotional attachment to this thing and your life is richer because of it, as opposed to just a series of flings from one product to the next."
If a talented designer like Jamshidi can design emotional durability into a microwave oven, who knows how our consumer culture might change as our concepts of how we relate to the products we use every day evolves?
Thomas Schueneman headshotThomas Schueneman

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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