Smart fridge, no free beer

Mini-bars: Bartech Systems International has employed new technology in producing smart mini-bars that even tell what items to restock.

November 23, 2001|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

A hotel guest takes a beer from the mini-bar, and the front desk knows instantly.

How? A computer told.

Hotels in cities including New York, Las Vegas and Paris are using the technology to track what guests take from the mini-bar and which rooms need the fridge restocked.

Millersville-based Bartech Systems International, which developed the mini-bars, predicts that the technology will eventually drive down the price of, say, a beer or a bag of peanuts for consumers because a mini-bar saves a hotel money.

Here's how it works: Microswitches and infrared beams inside the mini-bar read when an item is lifted off the shelf and send an instant message to the front desk, via a small computer hidden in the mini-bar.

"We call it the intelligent room, and that's the brain," Daniel Cohen, Bartech president and chief executive officer, said of the computer.

The mini-bars, or e-fridges as Bartech calls them, have already made their way into tens of thousands of hotel rooms. Bartech's products incorporate one of the many smart technologies in the works or on the horizon.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Auto-ID Center, for instance, is developing a system where smart tags (or microchips as small as a speck of dust on tiny antennas) would be on commercial products, and tiny radio antennas on supermarket shelves or residential refrigerators could read the smart tags. About 40 companies - including Procter & Gamble Co. and Kraft Foods Inc. - sponsor the project, but the technology is at least a decade away from consumers' fingertips, said Kevin Ashton, the center's executive director.

"Maybe one day, you won't need to take all your stuff out of the shopping cart and line up and do all that stuff because the chips will be talking to the shopping cart," Ashton said. Then, you could simply swipe your credit card through something in the store without going to the register.

California-based Alien Technology Corp., which makes the tiny computer chips that MIT's Auto-ID Center is using for the project, also makes display screens for smart cards.

The display screen could show, for instance, how much money a person has on his card or the last thing paid for with the card, said Jeffrey Jacobsen, Alien's president and chief executive officer. Jacobsen said such cards are already being used overseas and are a year or two away from coming to the United States.

But new technologies always carry drawbacks that no one envisioned when they first come out, warns George Basalla, a former professor of the history of technology at the University of Delaware.

"We think it's going to be cheap; we think it's going to be societal transforming," Basalla said. "It does transform society, but not quite in the way we suspect it will."

It's called technological utopianism, Basalla said. When the car was introduced, he said, people said there would be no manure in the streets. It would be clean, comfortable transportation. What could be better than riding on air enclosed in rubber tires?

"The reality for most of us is fighting the traffic," he said.

People are not realistic when evaluating a new technology, Basalla said. They always overplay it.

But Bartech's e-fridges are already standard in Europe, Cohen said. The first one was installed in Geneva in 1989, according to the company.

Today, the e-fridges are in 70,000 rooms worldwide - 13,000 are in the United States and all of them are in four- and five-star hotels. Cohen said the company, which had revenue of $15 million last year, expects to install at least another 20,000 mini-bars this year and 40,000 next year. (The mini-bars sell for about $900 each, which includes software, installation and training for employees.)

Bartech, a French company that moved to Maryland in 1997, has rigged the technology so it can hook up to other things in the room. If it's connected to the television, for instance, the hotel can run promotions offering guests discounts on mini-bar items if they buy a movie.

The company has more than 120 models of its e-fridge, some with dry sections for nonfood items such as pantyhose. A guest is charged only if the item is pulled from the fridge for more than 30 seconds. But management knows the second something has been picked up, so it can check if items have been tampered with or moved around.

Bartech also makes an e-basket, which is portable and not refrigerated, for dry items.

Philippe Striffeler, the food and beverage director for Hotel Nikko in San Francisco, said the mini-bars have saved his hotel time and money. Before, someone had to go in and check mini-bars in all 533 rooms in the hotel. Now, the hotel knows beforehand exactly which rooms need to be restocked, so they require fewer workers to make the rounds.

Also, Striffeler said monitoring the mini-bar by computer makes it easier to keep guests from taking an item from the fridge and then denying they did it.

"From our end, one of the best things about Bartech is we can see if they take it or not," he said.

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