By Andrew Connor
Photos: courtesy of the Hogea brothers

The Pepper smart kitchen scale, the brainchild of brothers Andrei (M.Des.+ M.B.A. ’18) and Mihai Hogea (M.D.M. ’18), started with a simple sketch of a scale, a carrot, and the Amazon logo, which Andrei had drawn for a course at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design (ID) after he was assigned to come up with an idea for a Kickstarter campaign. A water sport accident that resulted in nerve damage to Andrei’s right leg also served as personal inspiration.

“I remember trying to use nutrition logging apps to stay healthy since I wasn't able to work out anymore, but I kept falling off,” Andrei explains. “That stuck with me when I was working on this class project.”

His solution, Pepper, uses a database to provide detailed nutrition information for approximately 10,000 ingredients by weight. It also uses Amazon Alexa voice activation to retrieve dietary information for each ingredient, streamlining the cooking process for people with special dietary needs. Users can reference recipes on the device, and the dietary information for their meals is automatically logged onto their phones.

“Normally, you have to guess the amount [of food], pull out your phone, type in a text search field, then choose from hundreds of options. That entire process is about nine clicks from what I've mapped out, which takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes per meal,” says Andrei.

Both Andrei and Mihai came to the ID to pursue master’s degrees after feeling stuck in their previous careers. Andrei worked in medical sales and wanted more creativity; Mihai was a trained industrial designer but was seeing “the ceiling” of the profession. Andrei began his dual-degree program in 2015, while Mihai began his design program two years later.

“Before I came to ID, Andrei would make a little prototype; I would build and print a housing and ship it to him, and he would put it all together,” recalls Mihai.

They both took the course [Introduction to] Observing Users, which informed a research-driven and human-centered approach to the development of their hardware and software. The pair created a stockpile of physically rough but functional prototypes in a space they affectionately nicknamed Nerd Corner. Some of the prototypes were used by people during the brothers’ research phase, which consisted of visiting users’ homes to understand their cooking and nutrition behaviors to determine how Pepper could meet or surpass their needs. 

The Hogeas’ research reinforced that a hands-free approach to their device was crucial. It also informed their decision to add an LED ring around the scale that visualizes when a user has met the dietary goal for an ingredient, which makes seemingly opaque measurements much easier to understand.

“When people come home with a meal plan, they might be told to use a cup of this or 200 grams of that, or even 300 calories of something,” says Mihai. “With our technology a dietitian could upload a recipe to our device; there's almost no measurement or thought that goes into it at all.”

By the time the brothers graduated in spring 2018 Pepper was a fleshed-out idea with functioning prototypes behind it. Though the brothers initially had difficulty finding funding, a trip to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the following year was helpful in gaining them project exposure and getting the Hogeas into two tech accelerator programs.

Andrei and Mihai have since created 10 alpha prototypes, which are as close to a final, marketable scale as possible. They will undergo user testing at Illinois Tech’s Institute for Food Safety and Health, among other places, which the brothers are optimistic will bring Pepper closer to launch.

“It still amazes me how far Andrei and I have pushed this over the last two years without hiring or overextending our resources,” says Mihai. “These prototypes represent a huge development milestone for us, as we can finally get them into the hands of the right people. To me, Pepper has never been a means to an end. It’s an ongoing experiment, a mechanism for learning, and an opportunity to build something cool with my brother.”