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Amy Webb right and Anna Tauzin demonstrate a telepresence robot Beam
<p>Amy Webb (right) and Anna Tauzin demonstrate a telepresence robot, Beam.</p>

5 trends influencing new restaurant technology

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Imagine a restaurant where guests are shown to their table by a telepresence robot, like the Beam, driven remotely by a live hostess who appears as a face on the screen—and potentially could be working more than one restaurant at once.

On the table is a voice-activated Amazon Echo, which gives advice about wine pairings or the day’s specials. In the kitchen is IBM’s supercomputing Chef Watson, helping develop recipes to meet a guest’s allergy or lifestyle needs.

Or, for those who want their meal delivered, it arrives in minutes by drone.

These and other restaurant tech innovations were spotlighted at a National Restaurant Association Restaurant Innovation Summit in San Diego last week.

Whether consumer facing or behind the scenes, technology is increasingly become a tool for disruption within the hospitality industry.

Such change, however, brings with it a new way of thinking, said Amy Webb, founder and c.e.o. of the digital strategy consulting firm Webbmedia Group.

Webb outlined five digital trends that will help restaurant operators think about tech innovations in a new light:

1. Digital time zones. We tend to think of time chronologically, but Webb sees consumers using their digital tools and playthings in three new “zones”: “me time,” “our time” and “real time.”

“Me time” is when consumers are interacting with their device as a personal experience. That’s when it’s just a person and his or her smart phone in a “Calgon take me away” moment, playing a game or watching a cat video.

That’s different from “our time,” when consumers use their devices with other people to solve a problem, play or work. The device isn’t a wall, but actually facilitates conversation, she said.

In “real time,” devices do something immediate for consumers, like pagers that let them know their table is ready or apps that allow them to remotely get in line at their favorite restaurant

As they develop technology, restaurant operators should think about how they can accommodate more than one digital time zone. Could tabletop tablets offer “me time” entertainments in addition to “our time” ordering, for example?

“Start thinking about digital time zones, focusing on your customers’ needs and behaviors, rather than just their devices and your organization’s workflow,” she said.

2. Ambient attendants. Restaurant operators have long tried to anticipate guest needs even before guests know what they need. Now virtual technology is increasingly incorporating that responsive function into features with tools that give users notifications that are actionable even before they know to ask.

The Google Now personal assistant app, for example, will send an alert for you to leave your house earlier if there’s traffic along your usual commuter route. The restaurant chatbot Luka is being designed to give advice on dining out, but in a way that feels more like a conversation, sifting through reviews that would fit your specific tastes.

Webb calls it the “autocomplete for our intentions,” a trend that will likely be invisible but eventually ubiquitous.

“It’s still far off,” she said, “but it’s time to start thinking about how to incorporate these tools now.”

3. Recognition. Face recognition technology can increasingly pick a stranger out of a crowd, identify them, then tap public databases to find out all sorts of things about their lives.

Some apps now can also identify people by the way they type, like identifying handwriting. “Thermal fingerprinting” uses heat mapping to identify people, even if their face is covered, said Webb.

Compliance officers may be concerned about privacy, but the information available is public and legally accessible, Webb said, and the technology is a tool restaurant operators could harness to better understand their guests.

4. Cognitive computing. IBM, in particular, is doing a lot of work in this space, said Webb. Computers are increasingly able to develop “personality insights” on someone based on a snippet of text they write.

If a restaurant operator gets an angry email, for example, that text could be run through the system to create a profile of the writer, which would give the restaurant operator a better idea of how to respond effectively.

“It’s like a spell check, but for personality,” said Webb. “It could review your response and tell you how to tweak it to make sure it’s positively received.”

5. Participatory dining. In the old days, people went out because of FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out on something. Today, Millennials have FOGO, or Fear Of Going Out, because they’re afraid to miss out on something happening online.

Increasingly consumers are being pulled into collective Internet events that must be watched live, and live-streaming apps like Periscope are growing in acceptance.

Such events create a sense of intimacy or special access among viewers, said Webb. Restaurants could harness that to take guests on live-streaming tours of the kitchen, for example, or use telepresence robots like Beam to have celebrities remotely visit guests in the dining room.

Webb predicted telepresence, like the Beam, will be a big part of the “robot-assisted restaurant” in the future.

“A lot of people think this is a gimmick,” she said. “I’m telling you that it’s not.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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