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Android: Now changing the way you snack

The open nature of Google's Android operating system has made it the go-to for innovation in a lot of areas, including vending machine technology.

By Steven Max Patterson on Fri, 10/19/12 - 2:39pm.

Android is not only for smartphones. It fits many applications in many form factors, such as controlling robots and home automation. Vending machine technology provider Vendscreen has recognized this, and is adding better human interaction, intelligence and new payment choices to vending machines, with the help of Android.

Operating a vending machine business has its challenges. Keeping vending machines filled with the best-selling snacks to avoid lost revenues and determining the most efficient time to restock the contents with the optimal selection that maximizes revenue has challenged the vending machine business since its inception. Another challenge is evolving due to government policy and legislation. Federal and state governments are making policy and some are discussing enforcing the disclosure of nutritional information prior to the consumer purchasing from a vending machine on government property. This creates a problem because the nutritional information printed on the wrapper is not available until after the purchase. It is anticipated that this policy will extend to all vending machines everywhere.

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Vendscreen built a multi-touch Android solution to let customers read nutritional information, communicate to vending machine operators the status of the vending machines’ sales and inventory, and to increase the payment options afforded to consumers to include payments by near field communications (NFC) and credit and debit cards. With a bright, color screen, Vendscreen serves up ads to customers then records their clicks and purchases to gauge effectiveness.

Vendscreen modified Android 2.3.4 to interface with existing vending machine control buses DEX used for tracking all the transactional information, such as selections, sales, cash and MDB - an electrical standard for interfacing with other devices. Vendscreen CTO Glenn Butler explained “We wanted to have a multi-touch screen that allowed customers to use gestures learned from smartphones to interact with selections, advertisements and nutritional information. We could not have implemented these drivers using Apple iOS because it is a closed system and the source code is not available.”

In a field-installable and industry-standard form factor, Butler and his team have integrated Android, a camera for motion detection, 3G machine-to-machine (M2M) communications to send operational data to schedule restocking, cash collection and maintenance, and an NFC reader and credit card stripe reader.

Customers who don’t have crisp new dollar bills or a pocket full of coins can purchase using credit and debit cards or using any one of the NFC payment methods, such as Express Pay (Amex), Google Wallet, ISIS (T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T), PayPass (Mastercard) and Paywave (Visa). More payment choices will result in fewer lost sales.

According to Butler, “today, fewer than 250,000 of the 7 million vending machines communicate their status and only about half of these can accept cashless payments because these are single solutions that produce only part of the ROI.” Android’s low-cost, open architecture and ease of integration let Vendscreen’s customers achieve a greater ROI when they update by meeting multiple challenges: optimize restocking with M2M, displaying nutritional information, taking new forms of payment, and recording customer interaction data to better predict customer behavior and optimize customer choice and vending machine revenue. Vendscreen’s opportunity to serve this market was recognized with $12M of venture financing last January.

Android will continue to appear in applications that require intuitive user interfaces, computation, communications, sensors and control because it is open, the source code is available and, compared to proprietary solutions, Android reduces the time to market.