Intel Offers Internet Smarts for Dumb Vending Machines

Intel envisions Internet-connected vending machines that could serve both vendors and their customers better

2 min read
Intel Offers Internet Smarts for Dumb Vending Machines
Photo: iStockphoto

Most vending machines seem stubbornly stuck in the 20th century. Intel sees an opportunity to change that sad state of affairs by transforming vending machines into Internet-connected devices. Such a solution could enable intelligent vending machines to continuously update their advertising displays and send wireless alerts requesting a refill when they run low on Coca-Cola or potato chips.

The typical “dumb” vending machine has a basic microcontroller to manage payment, dispensing  products, refrigeration, and lighting control. Intel recently unveiled a hardware and software upgrade package, named the Intel IoT Retail Gateway Reference Design for Intelligent Vending, that adds PC-based computing “brains” to vending machines. Vendor companies can use Intel’s technology to either retrofit existing vending machines or provide a smarter platform for new machine designs.

"By consolidating multiple workloads onto a single vending platform, manufacturers can free up time to focus on meeting the increasing expectations of today's tech-savvy consumers," said Jose Avalos, worldwide director of visual retail at Intel, in a press release. "For example, customers can integrate new natural user interfaces, social media capabilities, loyalty programs and nutritional information—all of which will have a positive impact on the consumer's vending experience."

The “IoT” in the name stands for the Internet of Things, the vision of all smart gadgets and vehicles being connected through the Internet. That future holds both great promise and peril, given how any device with an Internet connection can theoretically be compromised by hackers. But Intel’s initiative to add vending machines to the Internet of Things does offer a tantalizing glimpse of some added conveniences.

A vending machine with an Internet connection allows vendor companies to more efficiently manage swarms of vending machines remotely from a central office. For example, individual machines could report whenever they’re running low on inventory or suffering from malfunctions. That alone might do much to rehabilitate the reputation of vending machines by reducing the number of incidents involving unsatisfied customers kicking or banging on the machines when they refuse to dispense drinks or snacks as requested.

The addition of a basic LCD screen could enable vending machines to continuously refresh their advertising displays and prices based on updates received from a centralized management system. An Intel video even floats the idea of vending machines that continuously change their pricing based on time of day and other conditions. The same video also describes vending machines using facial detection technology and cameras to collect “anonymous” data from customers based on their gender, age, and how long they spend in front of the machine.

Smarter vending machines could also incorporate the convenience of gesture recognition or phone payments based on near field communication (NFC). They could even potentially incorporate rewards programs for repeat customers. Intel partnered with N&W Global Vending to show off its latest technological package in a prototype vending machine that was on display at the VendItalia 2015 International Vending Exhibition in Milan from May 3-6. 

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Metamaterials Could Solve One of 6G’s Big Problems

There’s plenty of bandwidth available if we use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces

12 min read
An illustration depicting cellphone users at street level in a city, with wireless signals reaching them via reflecting surfaces.

Ground level in a typical urban canyon, shielded by tall buildings, will be inaccessible to some 6G frequencies. Deft placement of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces [yellow] will enable the signals to pervade these areas.

Chris Philpot

For all the tumultuous revolution in wireless technology over the past several decades, there have been a couple of constants. One is the overcrowding of radio bands, and the other is the move to escape that congestion by exploiting higher and higher frequencies. And today, as engineers roll out 5G and plan for 6G wireless, they find themselves at a crossroads: After years of designing superefficient transmitters and receivers, and of compensating for the signal losses at the end points of a radio channel, they’re beginning to realize that they are approaching the practical limits of transmitter and receiver efficiency. From now on, to get high performance as we go to higher frequencies, we will need to engineer the wireless channel itself. But how can we possibly engineer and control a wireless environment, which is determined by a host of factors, many of them random and therefore unpredictable?

Perhaps the most promising solution, right now, is to use reconfigurable intelligent surfaces. These are planar structures typically ranging in size from about 100 square centimeters to about 5 square meters or more, depending on the frequency and other factors. These surfaces use advanced substances called metamaterials to reflect and refract electromagnetic waves. Thin two-dimensional metamaterials, known as metasurfaces, can be designed to sense the local electromagnetic environment and tune the wave’s key properties, such as its amplitude, phase, and polarization, as the wave is reflected or refracted by the surface. So as the waves fall on such a surface, it can alter the incident waves’ direction so as to strengthen the channel. In fact, these metasurfaces can be programmed to make these changes dynamically, reconfiguring the signal in real time in response to changes in the wireless channel. Think of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces as the next evolution of the repeater concept.

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