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Wireless charging, interactive music, friendly baristas: The new face of hi-tech McDonald’s

Wireless charging. Interactive music. Friendly baristas. Soft, yellow tones and wood grain. This is a vision of the McDonald’s of the future. Except this future is already built inside a Hilton next to the Austin Convention Center for the South by Southwest exposition now under way. It’s the McDonald’s Corp.’s first official presence at the festival, evidence of a reimagining of the global restaurant chain, which has been battered by heightened competition around the globe and shifting tastes across the U.S.

Newly minted CEO Steve Easterbrook, who replaced ousted CEO Don Thompson in January, mingled with members of McDonald’s growing global tech team and some of the chain’s agency partners, as well as anyone coming through the door. In a sense, McDonald’s presence at South by Southwest is no different than that of any startup here flogging a new product, brand or app -- or attempting to use this event to jump-start a change in perception among tech influencers.

The restaurant chain is here for two reasons: to convince the digerati this is a brand ready to embrace technology and to harvest ideas on how to reinvent the company. Leading the effort is McDonald’s Chief Digital Officer Atif Rafiq, a longtime veteran of Amazon.com Inc. and Yahoo Inc., who dreamed up McDonald’s presence here, including an outdoor pavilion with a Wi-Fries truck.

Rafiq says technology is very much at the center of McDonald’s plans to reinvent itself. Since he joined in 2013, McDonald’s has opened a Silicon Valley outpost and increased the global tech team from 10 to more than 200. We talked to him about how technology plays into McDonald’s future.

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