‘Star Trek’ or just the next NRA Show?

One day into the industry’s annual convention, technology is already emerging as the big gee-whiz. As always, the exhibit floor is a carnival, jammed with food, décor and other P.T. Barnum-caliber distractions. Even in the presentations area, you can’t lob a doughnut into crowd without nailing a restaurant or cooking-show celeb. Yet cool new digital capabilities—here or anticipated—are the wows that have attendees of the NRA show speaking in awe.

It was tough at times to believe that technology could do what suppliers and users attested it already can, or at least will be able to do in the near feature. The applications sounded too Star Trek-ish to be real, even when they were.

If that sounds like exaggeration, see for yourself via this test of sorts. Try to differentiate between what’s science fiction and what’s the new tech reality for restaurants.

True or false: Eye motion will control restaurant tech. As one technology supplier remarked, fingers aren’t getting any smaller. Yet mobile touch screen devices might need to shrink more to reduce hardware costs, enhance mobility and lessen the banging larger tablets have to take in a high-volume setting. Might the user’s eyes in effect work like a mouse, moving a cursor or enacting a function?

Answer: True, with an asterisk. Eye-recognition technology is already here, but it’s just not sufficiently dependable or affordable to be viable for restaurants—yet. Tech suppliers and operators attested that it’s a matter of time.

True or false: Smart phone users can now choose a restaurant on the basis of wait times. In addition to showing users what restaurant choices are closest to them and how the places have been rated, the next generation of apps also displays how long customers are waiting in line for counter service or a table.

Answer: True and false. The technology is here, but not in use yet for restaurants. For instance, an executive of The Habit fast-casual burger concept voiced admiration during the show for the app that’s available today for the Great Clips haircutting chain. Users can not only find Great Clips units close to them, but can see how long the waits are for each store. Instead of driving to a place that’s five minutes away by car, only to wait 10 minutes for service, a user could opt instead for a unit that’s a 10-minute drive but has chairs immediately available.

The information to do the same for restaurants is embedded in kitchen display systems, the Habit exec noted. Right there on the screens are the orders pending, and past experience could put a prep time to each. An algorithm could translate that info into wait times for all of a chain’s stores in an area, exactly as Great Clips does. It’s definitely something that The Habit would be interested in doing, he said.

True or false: New tech will enable guests in the dining room to communicate with one another in real time. Isn’t it just an extension of social media? A guest at Table 1 isn’t sure what to order, so he or she asks the people at Table 3 via a tabletop tablet if they like the day’s special. Or merely what they’re eating, because it looked good en route to their table. Is it as good as it looked? Maybe they’d like to alert fellow guests perusing the menu that the fish is too salty that night, or that the shrimp special is worth the price. Of course, there’s always the potential to flirt, too. You can already engage in that sort of close-range customer-to-customer communications on some airlines. Why not in restaurants?

Answer: False. That sort of customer-to-customer communication still has to be channeled outside the restaurant via the large social media networks. You of course can check in and alert followers on various platforms that you’re in an establishment, and learn if others are in the same place, but you can’t IM a stranger because you’re eating a few tables apart. But doesn’t it sound a logical possibility? (And if there is that capability available already, please let me know, promeo@cspnet.com.)

True or false: Smaller tablets will someday work as kitchen display systems. Why do cooks need a Jumbotron screen to display orders and the status of tickets? Give those back to baseball stadiums and de-clutter the kitchen with screens just large enough to show what the cooks need to see and know.

Answer: True. The Habit about to test mini-tablets that fit into arms a line cook could adjust for visibility and location. The cost is lower, and there’s the advantage of positioning the screen at the optimum visibility point.

True or false: Air swiping is here. Having kitchen food handlers touch a button or screen creates another point of cross-contamination. What if they didn’t have to touch anything, but, as with eye-control technology, could advance to the next screen or order with a mere wave of their hand? No touching, no contamination risk.

Answer: True, or course, though not in use in kitchens yet, at least as far as we know. This tech has been available to laptop users for some time, thanks to the inclusion of cams. It’s a close cousin to voice recognition, which is similarly available though not applied to restaurants, for obvious reasons. Most kitchens don’t need another layer of noise.

Check back here for more information on the technology we discover—or wish we did—at the restaurant show.

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