South Africa, Life, etc

Cape Town hosts world’s first Twitter-powered vending machines

By Rebecca Davis 19 June 2012

Microsoft is selling tablet computers. Commercial space travel is now a reality. The world’s two first Twitter-activated vending machines have just landed in Cape Town. What’s going on? It can only be The Future, suggests REBECCA DAVIS.

Cape Town’s Wembley Square mall is not the most pleasant environment on earth at the moment. They’re currently carrying out renovations that give the whole place the look of an architectural dig, with some heady paint fumes as guaranteed headache material if you stick around long enough. As such, it seems an inglorious position for BEV, the “whirling, bleeping, buzzing BOS Ice Tea-vending robot”, which has been programmed to respond to tweets with product samples in what is claimed as a world first. 

Digital agency Cow Africa’s senior account manager, Larry Leyden, told the Daily Maverick that they started planning the campaign last November. “We wanted to find a way of giving out drink samples that was interesting, innovative, exciting. So we started wondering: would it be possible to make a vending machine activated by tweets?” The answer, it emerged, was yes. Inside the machine is a nano-PC which uses a hashtag as a Twitter filter. It continually scans the entire Twitter network for tweets matching its criteria, and responds when it finds one that does.

For the user, it’s simple: you approach the machine and tweet at the brand (@BOS), using the designated hashtag (#BOSTWEET4T), details of which are supplied on BEV herself. BEV checks that everything is in order with your tweets, and then rolls you out a can of iced tea. 

Leyden explains that they initially intended the tweets to be location-dependent – so you would need to have activated the geo-location facility on your Twitter application to prove that you were standing close by the machine in a position to collect your can. Then they realised that this would amount to “a bit of a hassle” for the user, so they removed this requirement. As a result, you can now be sitting in Johannesburg and cause BEV to expel a can. There’s a two minute delay between tweet processing, however, and it’s limited to one can per Twitter handle.

When I arrived to visit BEV on Tuesday morning, she was sitting dejectedly out of stock, not whirling, bleeping or buzzing. We all know it’s bad news when robots lose their raison d’être – sometimes it causes them to turn against their human overlords in every sci-fi flick worth its salt – but BEV seemed to lack the energy to lead a robot mutiny. Soon a man arrived to re-stock her, but it appeared that BEV just wasn’t in the mood to put out. Some slightly worried-looking people fussed around her for a while, but then BEV regained her mojo, flashing out the message: “Let’s get vending trending!”

I approached her with some scepticism – and also a slight, inexplicable sense of mortification – and sent the required tweet from my BlackBerry. There was a delay of no more than two seconds before BEV hummed into life, selecting a can and pushing it down the chute. The machine then expressed its desire for me to enjoy my drink (in a satisfyingly robotic voice), while flashing my Twitter handle to the world. I cannot lie, dear reader – I experienced that enjoyable frisson that comes from a brush with The Future.   

Cow Africa is at pains to describe this as probably the world’s first “sampling” machine activated by Twitter, because they’ve got competition – within Cape Town, within the same fortnight. Agency Draft FCB, in collaboration with ThingKing, pipped BEV to the post by making a tweet-activated gumball machine for Toyota as part of a “Tweets for Sweets” campaign for Toyota Etios. 

This particular tweet-powered robot resembles a Heath Robinson-esque contraption made of random objects, and has been set up in a disused shop window in Gardens, close to the centre of Cape Town. The Etios Smile Machine works in the same way as BEV – you tweet (ostensibly about “what makes you smile”, but clearly this content is irrelevant) using the hashtag #etiossmile, and the machine releases a gumball. This is all in line with their wider campaign message, which is that the release of the Toyota Etios is “spreading smiles on and offline”. 

Leyden insists a crucial difference is that BEV was built from a real vending machine. “So ours is giving out samples of our actual product, whereas theirs isn’t giving out samples of Toyotas,” says Leyden, a touch defensively. “Though it would be cool if it did.” 

Gumball machines, sampling machines – call them what you like, but they’re reasonably confident these are world firsts. “This is also suggested by the fact that the pick-up from international media has been quite significant,” says Leyland. 

However, neither BEV nor the Etios Smile Machine are the first gimmicky social media-driven machines. In 2010 Unilever rolled out the first ever smile-activated ice cream vending machine. If you smiled widely enough for the machine’s camera – there was a “smile-o-meter” which had to be satisfied – a photo was taken, uploaded to Facebook (with the user’s permission), and the machine rewarded you with a free ice cream.

Now, I ain’t no marketer’s patsy. I’m fully aware that in having sent my tweet to redeem my drink or my gumball, I’ve just been lured into advertising this product for free online. This is clearly the appeal of these kinds of campaigns for advertisers. But because the users, in turn, get a free product and a nifty experience with some novel technology, it doesn’t feel exploitative. Welcome to the future – we may all turn into brand gimps, but at least we’ll have loads of free stuff.  DM

Read more:

  • Twitter-activated vending machine trades tea for tweets, on Gizmag
  • Watch the Toyota Etios Tweets for Sweets campaign on YouTube

Photo: Wembley Square, Cape Town



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