Holly tweets every time someone at the Nottingham Hackspace in Nottingham, Britain, buys something from the vending machine.
But Holly, counter her deceivingly humanoid name, is not some weird, passive-aggressive person tweet-shaming her colleagues about their snack choices. “She” is a computer server — and thanks to an ingenious hack by James Fowkes, she not only knows who buys snacks, but what they bought, when they bought it and how much they paid.
“It doesn’t always tweet,” Fowkes told Computerphile’s Sean Riley in a short video about the machine. “We have turned it off in recent weeks because people have been arguing with it and getting quite angry that it was telling everyone what they were eating on a regular basis.”
Can you blame them?
Here’s how the machine works, in very rudimentary terms. The drop mechanism in the machine is attached to a several input devices: a coin mechanism and an ID-scanner, which links to an Internet-enabled board. If you put cash in, it works like a regular old vending machine. (Boring.) But if you scan your ID card and make a snack selection, the machine relays that information to the server, asking how much money you have in your account. If you have enough, the server sends that signal back to the machine, the machine vends your snack, and the money automatically deducts from your account. Plus the server, which is connected to lots of additional devices and services, sends a tweet kind of like this:
“Daniel purchased a 50p Confectionary from the vending machine.” The 50p is how much the Twix cost, FYI, and the tweet comes from Holly’s (sadly private) Twitter account. Everyone who follows Holly then knows exactly what Daniel consumed.
This is, of course, not particularly revolutionary — “the Internet of Things,” that alternately thrilling and terrifying hypothetical future in which all our devices communicate with the Web and each other, has been on the minds of investors and futurists for years. A company named SmartThings already lets consumers control their lights and locks remotely. LG has a refrigerator that inventories the food inside of it.
Equally, if not more, interesting inventions have come from DIY hackers and Arduino enthusiasts, people like Fowkes or San Franciscan Tom Coates, who rigged his scale and thermostat to Twitter. His house even tweets when he comes home or goes out.
Welcome home, @tomcoates!— House of Coates (@houseofcoates) April 7, 2014
But even if a tweeting snack machine isn’t, you know, life-changing, it’s still (a) really cool, and (b) a fascinating glimpse into a future where smart-toasters and smart-vacuums and smart-whatever-else-you-can-dream-up are ubiquitous as smartphones, both in our homes and in more public spaces. Plus, the technology in this vending machine is theoretically easy enough for any home hobbyist to replicate. If this is the future, it’s close enough to reach.
In fact, the Nottingham Hackspace has already started on another machine. This one will sell soda.