Another Needed Innovation

It’s a huge, hulking piece of work. I bet you usually stop by on your way into or out of the office, not giving it a whole lot of thought. But at least in my corner of the US, it’s still stuck in the 20th Century, like the taxi waiting for a Uber to come along and supplant it. I’m talking about the vending machine, snack or drink.

Apparently one of the longest lasting forms of human machinery, my cursory Wikipedia search suggests that vending machines have existed in some form ever since ancient times, but that modern iterations began to appear in the 1880’s. These initially dispensed postage stamps, but snacks and games were added as incentives to buy more stuff. (Hey, do they still have those little machines outside of grocery stores where you insert a coin, back in my day it was only a penny but I know that would no longer be the case, and get a piece of gum or sour candy? My sister and I did that regularly on shopping excursions with our mom. Ah, the joys of childhood).

Anyhow, I have a lot of beef, or should that be chips? juice? with them, because of the way they typically operate. I don’t know if all of my blind readers will agree, but they can be quite a pain! As I did in my taxi entry, I’ll walk you through a use case, a recent one, that will show you every issue I have with them.

Picking a Product

Given that I work at a place that is mostly for individuals who are blind, it isn’t surprising that our machines, well at least some of them, have big, shiny Braille panels beside them that list their contained items. Only these numbers don’t always remain static, and I guess the cost and hastle involved in changing them is usually not deemed worth it. This means I might press 56 for a snickers and instead get a bag of skittles. Ah, I wanted my chocolate!

What happened to me as I attempted to get a drink was probably more annoying than that would be, though. On this particular machine, one with long buttons that allowed Braille labels to be affixed directly to them, one could hardly read the labels anymore, so faded were they with time. I had no idea what the first two choices were, but saw on the third (Unintelligible)(Unintelligible)awber(Unintelligible)(Unintelligible). Ok, strawberry? I liked that juice when I had it last time. Cold bottle cradled in my arm, I make my way outside with mouth watering in anticipation. And… that’s just what I got, water! For a dollar. Well I sure hope that stuff was vitamin enhanced or had run in the Nile 2000 years ago or would keep me awake as long as I needed to or something more than just what I get out of my tap.

Inserting the Currency

Ah, but of course we’ve actually omitted half the fun. I repeatedly smooth the dollar against my shirt, trying to remove the folds that suggest a well-traveled existence. I know also that the middle feels tender enough to tear, and the sides are kind of bent. So I’ll concede that it may not make the best candidate for acquiring something from a machine, but it’s all I had.

I wiggle waggle and get it to suck in once, and it slides back out. A second time facing another direction, out again. Flip? Reverse! Two more times. Out again and again. Soft unpleasant utterancs issue from me while louder ones come from the folks behind me who are wishing to get something.

“Hey, we only got 15 good minutes for lunch pal!”

“I’m sorry! Not my fault I have to perform calisthenics in order to get the darn thing to accept my dough.”

The sweet sense of relief when that thunk comes that lets me know the money has been taken for good.

Possible Solutions

I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems my iPhone can do almost all of this stuff better than that machine can. For instance, I can take a picture of my money with an app, several apps actually, and no matter how I have it faced it will tell me I’m holding a 1, 5, 10, or 20 dollar bill. Can they not build readers that don’t need the money to be placed just so in order for recognition to occur? I did like the one we had at our university right before I left that would allow you to swipe your ID to get the goods. That or a debit card swipe might be nice, though I’ve heard talk that people fear large scale implementation of this as it might turn us all into roving monkeys. Well, perhaps.

And as for the selection of choices, can we get some sort of text-to-speech engine that would make it easy to know what is there? I guess practically speaking, it could take a while for people to make their selection if they had to scroll through the whole menu, but maybe things could be categorized. Which kind of snack or drink do you want first, then which specific one would you like. They could add voice recognition for more fun, and have folks screaming at the machine “No, I said snickers. … No, not dorritos, SNICKERS! Geez.”

Obviously this isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of problems that need solving, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about lately. I know that some of this stuff might actually already be in use, but as previously noted things tend to change a bit more slowly in these parts sometimes. That noted, have you in fact seen a better model?

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