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.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.