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Vending machines are classic products for developers in the real-time world. They combine control of hardware in the motors that drive the product; they include simple user interfaces that are designed to be simple to use and readily understood, with a degree of remoteness.
To this mix, we added support for Chip and PIN, accepting payment from credit cards. The products are tending to be high value items, not the 50p cup of coffee or bar of chocolate. One of the first examples is the MyMemory machines, a typical example of which is installed in the Departure lounge at Gatwick Airport. As you are about to leave for your holiday, you realise that you need an additional memory card for your digital camera or mobile phone. This machine vends the most popular items from MyMemory's huge range of products. (see mymemory.co.uk)
This machine has now been enhanced to include what is efectively an expert system. You provide details of the device that you want to buy memory for and the software provides you a number of suggestions, based on the memory devices that are available in the machine. If the machine is out of stock on an item, then it won't offer you that item. The user interface is based on a touchscreen, so you control the machine through touch.
We have provided a simple add-on solution for a vending machine to add telemetry. We return data about the machine, such as stock situation, faults in the machine, need for maintenance etc. This returns an email to a defined email address with all of that information. In addition, we can send email alerts, for events such as low-stock, jammed produce etc. We work with vendpay.net, maintained by K6, and data is analysed with results displayed through a web interface.
Another successful Vending machine project is a range of cigarette vending machines. These are modern, attractive and quite stunning machines because they look futuristic, and make effective use of materials such as stainless steel and glass. These machines are installed in places like the Roof Gardens, in Kensington.
The machine uses Chip'n'PIN to handle credit card transactions, communicating over the mobile phone network to approve a transaction. A card reader and PIN card is included inside the machine.
The machine was designed by K6 Design group (k6.co.uk). They are skilled mechanical designers and also did much of the design for the electronics. We helped with some of the electronic hardware and wrote all of the software.
The machine uses a LCD to provide feedback to the user. This, and the selection buttons, are actually located along the edge of the machine. Produce is dispensed through the glass door shown at the bottom of the picture above. LED lighting is used throughout the machine to provide the halo effect visible in the picture above, and also to light key areas of the machine. The effect is subtle and quite satisfying.