Sunday, March 31, 2013

Vending Machine - A Glittering Journey from Gum ball to Gold

On my first trip to the US, I was en route to Cincinnati via JFK airport. One of the few things I still remember from the first of many JFK layovers was the ubiquity of vending machines disgorging shiny red cans of coke. Little did I know then that over the next few years, I would have many up-close interactions with these coin-sucking, coffee-spouting machines during  many late night hours at graduate school.

A vending machine of course is hardly a subject for reflection on a technology blog. We take them for granted and they come in handy - that's all. But the more I think of it, they actually are an essential part of our urban life. They too have evolved with technology, much like other gadgets such as TVs or phones.  And, in a way, they reflect the tastes or preference of society.

The History:

The notion of mechanized self-service is actually pretty old. The Greek mathematician Hero seems to have gotten the ball rolling in 215BC, when he invented a machine to vend holy water in an Egyptian temple at Alexandria. In 1076 A.D., a coin-activated pencil dispenser was developed in China. In post industrial revolution Europe, one of the earlier instances of vending machines goes back to 1880 when commercial coin-operated vending machines were introduced in London to dispense post cards. Once ubiquitous gumball vending machines in the US were first introduced in 1907.

Since then, the basic technology of vending machines remained somewhat same - mechanism to test and check the coins (or paper bill) and then a mechanical or electric  motor actuation of the feeder trays to release the item. 

Fast forward to 21st Century: 

Machines in the 21st century are of course a little more sophisticated. They may now come with touchscreen for selection, LCD display, and connectivity for credit card validation. Today, like everything else, they too are increasingly fitted with wireless chipsets, connected to the internet  to transmit real-time transaction, enabling purchase through smartphones. In the age of Internet of Things (IoT), 'remote vending' that permits vendors to remotely scan and manage stock and to even change pricing on the fly may soon become the norm.

Supporting social preferences or even crisis mitigation:

While Pepsi, Coke, Coffee and snack vendors  dominate today's vending machines in the US, vending machines in some parts of Europe can serve up Pizza. In Japan, the vending machine economy is probably more diverse than anywhere else in the world serving everything from snacks and beverages to clothes, electronics and even beer! And in some parts of the world ravaged by AIDS, access to vending machines for condoms has actually become an effective tool for both government and NGOs (Non Government Organizations) to fight the spread of HIV.

The age of Internet of Things (IoT) changes everything:

Today in the US, smart vending machines are being equipped with connectivity technology that not only enables purchase by smartphones, but can locate and inform the nearest replenishing depot, so machines are refilled before popular products run out.  This  just-in-time inventory management is enabling automated kiosks for diverse businesses such as ticket sales and vending of high value items such as electronics.
Vending by Twitter: One South African beverage company recently made news by launching Twitter-activated vending machines as part of a promotion in Capetown. Consumers who send a tweet to vending machines in select locations, while standing in front of it, receive free samples of its local branded iced tea. The IP-enabled, wirelessly connected 'smart' vending machine is programmed such that all tweets with a certain hashtag are streamed to the machine. It then checks every tweet's location and if it is within a certain proximity of itself, it dispenses the beverage! What a deal! 

Mother of all vending machines:

Let me end this blog with what I thought was the mother of all vending machines! The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi has reportedly installed the world's first Connected gold vending machine in its lobby. The Gold To Go machine from Ex Oriente Lux  serves 24-carat gold bars and coins in a nice gift box. But here is the kicker! The buyers make menu choices via a 19-inch touch screen interface and the prices get updated wirelessly every hour via a link to the company's online shop. The inventory is monitored with RFID tags supported by a 24/7 security camera and an ID scanner to prevent money laundering.
Just make sure you have a well funded credit card before you try the bullion dispenser. Save the loose change for the good old coke machine ! 

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