The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pizza Hut wants to read your mind

Gaze into your pizza future. Courtesy of Pizza Hut.
Placeholder while article actions load

Ordering pizza by thinking and speaking words is so last century. Pizza Hut is now testing technology that allows diners to order within seconds, using only their eyes. The future!

Calling it "the world's first subconscious menu," the pizza giant has since October been testing a special eye-tracking tablet with some of the diners of its 300 locations across the U.K. The digital menu shows diners a canvas of 20 toppings and builds their pizza, from one of 4,896 combinations, based on which toppings they looked at longest. To try again, a diner can glance at a "restart" button.

"Finally the indecisive orderer and the prolonged menu peruser can cut time and always get it right," a Pizza Hut spokesperson said in a statement, "so that the focus of dining can be on the most important part - the enjoyment of eating!"

The menu, built by Swedish eye-tracking firm Tobii Technology, is the product of six months of retina-scanning development and "psychological research," according to Pizza Hut, which is testing it for now only in the U.K. A potential expansion into the United States could be in the cards, based on how well the pilot system works.

Across the world's fast-food empire, few companies have invested so heavily in changing the way people order as the elites in America's $38 billion pizza industry. And for good reason: Pizza Hut said digital orders made up 40 percent of its delivery and carryout business last quarter, and Domino's has said customers spend more, and come back more often, when they can order online.

But the pizza arms race has brought about a growing line of questionably useful technology aimed at knocking down one of the few remaining borders between wanting a pizza and eating one. Xbox One gamers in the U.K. can say "Domino's, Feed Me," and the voice-activated console will send in a delivery order instantly. And hundreds of thousands of customers have already used the chain's new voice-ordering function of its mobile app, added this summer. (It's a lot like calling in for a pizza, except you talk to a computer, instead of a person.)

Will the tablet be a herald, as the chain said, of the end of the paper menu? Analysts said that seems unlikely. Looking at a picture of pepperoni for a few seconds is very different from wanting to binge on a large Meat Lover's. But the technology is not that far removed from Web retailers' ubiquitous recommendations engines, which predict what a shopper might want based on what items they've looked at before.

What makes restaurants so excited about ordering via tablets? They make it easier for us to impulsively order items we might regret if, say, we had to talk to a person to order it. They show diners a fuller range of goodies, making them more likely to see extras they want. And they make ordering quicker, more convenient and more streamlined, with fewer humans in the middle taking orders (and wanting paychecks).

McDonald's expanded an experimental tablet-ordering system across restaurants in California in September. Chili’s, the tchotchke-filled Tex-Mex chain, became the king of humanless food-selling this summer when it installed 45,000 tabletop tablets in restaurants nationwide.

Even if its "subconscious menu" is never fully actualized, Pizza Hut could benefit from looking like it's as digitally savvy as rival Domino's. David C. Novak, the chief executive of Yum! Brands, the conglomerate owner behind Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, told analysts this year, “Our goal is to not only catch the competition on the digital front, but to surpass it in 2015."