An army of robot baristas could mean the end of Starbucks as we know it


By Christopher Mims — October 17, 2013

Starbucks’ 95,000 baristas have a competitor. It doesn’t need sleep. It’s precise in a way that a human could never be. It requires no training. It can’t quit. It has memorized every one of its customers’ orders. There’s never a line for its perfectly turned-out drinks.

It doesn’t require health insurance.

Don’t think of it as the enemy of baristas, insists Kevin Nater, CEO of the company that has produced this technological marvel. Think of it as an instrument people can use to create their ideal coffee experience. Think of it as a cure for “out-of-home coffee drinkers”—Nater’s phrase—sick of an “inconsistent experience.”

Think of it as the future. Think of it as empowerment. Your coffee, your way, flawlessly, every time, no judgments. Four pumps of sugar-free vanilla syrup in a 16 oz. half-caff soy latte? Here it is, delivered to you precisely when your smartphone app said it would arrive, hot and fresh and indistinguishable from the last one you ordered.

In a common area at the University of Texas at Austin, the Briggo coffee kiosk, covered in fake wood paneling and a touch screen and not much else, takes up about as much space as a pair of phone booths. Its external appearance was designed by award-winning industrial designer Yves Behar, with the intention that it radiate authenticity and what Briggo says is its commitment to making coffee that is the equal of what comes out of any high-end coffee shop.

The kiosk at the university is the second version, the one that will be rolling out across the country in locations that are still secret. It needs just 50 square feet (4.6 sq m) of floor space, and it can be dropped anywhere—an airport, a hospital, a company campus, a cafe with tables and chairs and WiFi just like Starbucks. It’s manufactured in Austin.

Inside, protected by stainless steel walls and a thicket of patents, there is a secret, proprietary viscera of pipes, storage vessels, heating instruments, robot arms and 250 or so sensors that together do everything a human barista would do if only she had something like perfect self-knowledge. “How is my milk steamer performing? Am I a half-degree off in my brewing temperature? Is my water pressure consistent? Is there any residue buildup on my brewing chamber that might require me to switch to a backup system?”

The Briggo coffee kiosk knows how to make a perfect coffee because it was “trained” by an award-winning barista, Patrick Pierce. He’s since left the company, but no matter: as in the techno-utopian Singularity, whose adherents believe that some day we will all upload our brains to computers, once a barista’s essence has been captured by Briggo, his human form is just a legacy system.

Besides, baristas, especially the ones at America’s favorite “high end” coffee shop, don’t often stick around long enough to become as good as Pierce. Turnover at Starbucks, which is typical of all demanding retail environments, leads to what Nater calls “variation,” and not the kind that’s exciting—the kind that coffee connoisseurs frown upon, because it means coffee isn’t being extracted from beans in the optimal way.

“What we’ve created is in essence a small food factory that absolutely replicates what a champion barista does,” says Nater. Briggo roasts its own beans—sourced by a pair of coffee supply veterans who between them spent a combined 40 years at Starbucks. “We have calibrated this machine to pull espresso shots to the same specification as an Illy or a Stumptown or an Intelligentsia. We’ve just done it without the human element.”

Ever stood in line at a Starbucks or some other cafe and wondered why, in the year 2013, you can’t just send in your order 10 minutes early via an app on your phone, and pick it up as soon as you walk in? Briggo has such an app. It asks you to log in, so it can memorize your order and payment information, which enables one-click coffee ordering. Or you can order a coffee for a friend. And use the app to check out how long the wait is for a drink. Fifteen minutes? Just complete your order now, while you’re walking across campus—it will be ready by the time you arrive. Hit another button to announce on Facebook that you’ll be at the Briggo kiosk by 9:30, and hey, who wants to meet up?

“What we find at [the University of Texas] is that we have a younger generation of consumers who have no inhibition about ordering remotely and having self service,” says Nater. “Coffee shops are a great social interaction point, but so is social media.”

Had a great experience at Briggo? Why not tweet that? Invented a new combination of syrups and brew temperatures and other elements that yields the perfect drink? Tweet that, too. Briggo will make you an espresso, a latte, even an iced coffee made with a cold-brew process, something even many coffee shops don’t offer because it’s time consuming to produce. Not a coffee drinker? How about a chai latte, an ice chai latte, hot chocolate, or milk steamer?

In 2012, Julian Baggini, a British philosophy writer and coffee aficionado, wondered why dozens of Europe’s Michelin-starred restaurants were serving guests coffee that came out of vacuum-sealed plastic capsules manufactured by Nespresso. So he conducted a taste test on a small group of experts. A barista using the best, freshly-roasted beans went head to head with a Nespresso capsule coffee brewing machine. It’s the tale of John Henry all over again, only now it was a question of skill and grace rather than brute strength.

As the chefs at countless restaurants could have predicted, the Nespresso beat the barista.

Capsule coffee systems make consistent only two steps in the coffee-making process, but they’re the most important ones: Roasting and brewing. Beans roasted in a factory don’t change from the moment they’re vacuum-sealed into a capsule, because oxygen is the agent that causes food to go stale. (By contrast, beans roasted “fresh” are oxidizing continuously, until they’re brewed.) And the coffee-brewing process is complicated enough that achieving its most perfect expression requires a machine free from human interference.

“With a pre-dose capsule, it’s always the right grind,” says Mark Romano, a senior director at Illy coffee, which makes its own line of capsule coffee systems. “And with a self-contained extraction chamber, you can consistently get to 80-90 [out of a quality scale of 100].”

Capsule brewing systems can now control more variables in the brewing process—the relevant ones being temperature, pressure, and the way in which water reaches the ground beans—than even the best machine at an average Starbucks, says Romano.

“In any system you work with, the biggest risk you have to quality is the residual coffee oils that become oxidized, rancid and stale. They are conveying flavors into the next cup,” says Romano. Cleaning these machines properly is hard, and may just replace the problem of residual coffee oils with the problem of residual cleaning products. A capsule system, being disposable, is immune to these problems. It also, claims Illy in its promotional literature, “ensures a complete saturation of all the particles in the capsule,” something traditional brewing systems have trouble achieving.

I ask Romano whether Starbucks would be better off serving its customers coffee brewed from capsules. “I think in many cases they would. Perhaps a large percent of their locations should be using capsules.” Romano also notes that while Illy still employs “baristi” in many of its 240 cafes in Europe, there are only eight Illy cafes in North America, mostly because it’s impossible to find baristi who have been trained to the company’s exacting standards.

I also asked Starbucks if it would ever increase the amount of automation it already uses in its stores. Linda Mills, a spokesperson for the company, would say only that it wouldn’t move in this direction because an automated barista would “diminish what we offer every day.”

What she means, presumably, is the experience of being served by a human being. But is that enough?

Briggo’s leaders assert that they are “fanatical” about coffee, and that automation is primarily an enabler that will, as Nater puts it, “allow us to get large fast.” Their recent hire of Starbucks vets who have backgrounds in sourcing, blending and inventing new and seasonal drinks is, they say, about making something that is the equal of any other “third-wave” coffee shop like Starbucks or Stumptown.

Generally automation in food service has meant first standardizing the foods to be prepared, which means robbing them of their individual character. Currently, Briggo sells only a single blend of beans from three countries. But there’s nothing stopping the kiosk from dispensing single-origin coffees and adjusting its every parameter to accommodate a new crop of beans, says Nater.

The Briggo coffeebot “can measure humidity and shock time and can automatically adjust the grind of the bean to compensate,” he says. “We have visibility with that bean. We track every single shot of espresso. We know if it’s within our quality spec, and we fully control the whole supply chain. We can go well beyond what a high-attrition part-time employee can do.”

Briggo doesn’t have to be better than the best baristas in the world. It just has to be better than the nearest coffee shop. Think of this not as the epic chess showdown between Garry Kasparov and the IBM computer Deep Blue; think of Briggo, rather, as the Redbox video kiosk to Starbucks’ Blockbuster.

Still, there are limits to the Redbox/Blockbuster analogy. Blockbuster went into decline because it couldn’t offer anything that wasn’t offered by video kiosks or, more importantly, online-streaming services like Netflix. But as Romano of Illy points out, a coffee vending machine can’t reproduce the experience of a coffee shop. “Coffee is something social—do you really want to replace the social value of [your barista]?” he asks. And indeed, Nater told Melanie Kaplan of Smartplanet, ”We’re not asking people to stop going to coffee shops.”

But Briggo is hoping to at least displace Starbucks somewhat. Tim Kern, a 22-year veteran of Starbucks who joined Briggo in July, observes that some of the places where the company is scouting locations, like public areas in corporate campuses, are the sort where people might get both their social and their caffeine fix rather than trek to a nearby coffee shop. It’s not unlike the disruption of the PC industry by tablets and smartphones: these mobile devices haven’t replaced the PC, but they certainly reduce the number of occasions when you need one.

For now, a direct replacement for Starbucks—imagine a cafe with a host but no baristas—is not in Briggo’s business plan, though the company’s leaders have discussed it in the past, says Kern. (Romano is skeptical of such ideas: “We could go back to the 50′s, where you could go into the Automat, where you’d have those machines where you could get whatever you wanted, but what is the real value of that experience?” he asks.) The near-term plans are to move into places with bad coffee—think universities, hospitals, airports and corporate cafeterias—and improve the offerings. “With just 50 square feet we can create a barista-quality experience in a location where a coffee shop can’t have the economics to operate,” says Nater.

Barista robots are barely even a thing yet, and already the space is getting crowded. One company aiming for the lower end of the market is Marley Coffee, which in partnership with vending machine manufacturer AVT has developed “an Android-based coffee kiosk that comes with a full touchscreen automated checkout system,” says Joe Menichiello, vice president of sales and marketing at AVT.

One model sports a gigantic, 48-inch (122 cm) touchscreen. “You press the type of coffee you want, and specify how much sugar you want, and you swipe your card, and while it’s being ground and brewed for you, it’s playing Bob Marley music,” says Menichiello. Yes, Marley coffee is named for that Marley. ”Bob Marley is one of the top 10 most recognized names in the world,” says Menichiello. “From a branding standpoint it’s a no-brainer for us.”

AVT’s system isn’t nearly as sophisticated as Briggo’s—there is, for example, no expertly foamed, market-fresh milk here, just the powdered kind—but still, says Menichiello, “we’re grinding the beans individually for each and every customer. Ours will have that crema [the oils from coffee beans] on top that coffee won’t have unless it’s just been ground.” This, he says, “makes it almost better than at any brick-and-mortar coffee shop.”

The parts that go into a Marley Coffee kiosk are at this point standard enough that AVT expects to have plenty of competition. “Coffee is coffee and there are a lot of companies that follow the same model as us,” says Menichiello. “When we were at NAMA—the big vending convention in Las Vegas—I was looking around and there were a lot of machines where you could press a button and they’d do the bean to cup thing where it’s ground fresh for every customer.”

Indeed, one of AVT’s competitors is Starbucks itself. It already has a deal with Redbox to put coffee kiosks everywhere there’s currently a Redbox DVD rental kiosk, under the Seattle’s Best brand that Starbucks owns. These systems are actually built by Coinstar, which owns Redbox, and the machines go by the trade name Rubi.
But there are nonetheless different niches within the market. Starbucks’ kiosks tend to be aimed at convenience stores and supermarkets. Briggo is going after a higher-end customer. Marley Coffee sits somewhere in the middle, and is putting its systems into airports (where Briggo also has ambitions) and university bookstores.

There are two ways for an upstart to disrupt an incumbent like Starbucks: One is to deliver a better experience, which Briggo’s leaders believe they can do through a combination of convenience and technological whiz-bang, and the other is to compete on price. A cup of organic coffee from the Briggo kiosk is $1.40, while a cup of drip (non-organic) coffee at Starbucks is $1.85 in many locations. The difference in price reflects, in part, the difference in the expense structure of the two approaches: Briggo doesn’t have to deal with the overhead of all that human labor, and at present it also doesn’t have to think about the cost of renting all that retail space.

Briggo has raised “in excess of $11 million,” says Nater, and while it has only “about 20 employees,” it has managed to stack its executive suite with with people who have deep experience in building and running technology companies that scale. Briggo founder Charles Studor was formerly the head of the billion-dollar integrated circuit division at Motorola/Freescale. The CIO, John Craparo, was formerly the CIO of GE Capital and Dell Financial Services. Briggo’s VP of engineering spent 25 years leading manufacturing projects at Johnson & Johnson. The Briggo kiosk is designed in collaboration with Deaton Engineering, which has created everything from battle-hardened PCs for the Air Force to industrial waste-bailing systems.

“Our aspirations are to build a global business,” says Nater. “We’ve had interest from the Middle East, North America and Asia. We think this model works very well in Asia where a mobile platform and automated experience has been adopted heavily.”

Two big unknowns loom over Briggo and anyone else trying to follow its lead. The first is whether or not people will, at least some of the time, accept a coffee kiosk as a substitute for a coffee shop, even if the product is the same or better. And the second is whether Briggo’s high-end machines can deliver a cup of coffee so much better that cheaper competitors like Marley and Seattle’s Best can’t crowd them out.

But it’s still early days. Starbucks itself was an example of how an evolving company can take a winding path toward finding its perfect market fit, says Kern. When Kern started at Starbucks, the company was still trying to be a “retail experience” designed to sell coffeemakers and beans. But customers kept coming in demanding a cup of coffee, so eventually it decided to change direction. “What Starbucks turned into is something I could not have conceived when it was just six stores,” says Kern.

It’s also worth noting that in a key sense, Briggo isn’t a coffee company. It would be hard pressed to beat all the others on the quality of its beans. Rather, it’s an automation company, whose special skill is in creating computerized robot systems than can be endlessly refined and elaborated. Which means that if another company were to try to acquire Briggo, rather than a larger coffee conglomerate or a food retailer, why not one that is all about the perfection of automated processes—like Amazon?

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

Soaring sales for George Orwell’s ‘1984’ with recent news of U.S. government spying and surveillance on its citizens


With news of government spying and surveillance dominating the headlines, sales of Orwell’s classic novel have shot up more than 3,000 percent on The book currently comes in at No. 5 on the site’s Movers and Shakers list of the biggest sales gainers of the day, and had been as high as No. 4 earlier in the day. Sales of the book began to jump on Monday, when it rose to No. 19.

In “1984,” English author Orwell presents a dystopian future with a totalitarian, tyrannical government where “Big Brother is watching you.”

Separately, a dual edition of “1984” and Orwell’s other classic, “Animal Farm,” comes in at No. 11 on Amazon’s list.

Orwell died in 1950, just a year after “1984” was published.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

$300 dollar glasses sold on Amazon will correct colorblindness


Mark Changizi and Tim Barber turned research on human vision and blood flow into colorblindness-correcting glasses you can buy on Amazon. Here’s how they did it.

About 10 years ago, Mark Changizi started to develop research on human vision and how it could see changes in skin color. Like many academics, Changizi, an accomplished neurobiologist, went on to pen a book. The Vision Revolution challenged prevailing theories–no, we don’t see red only to spot berries and fruits amid the vegetation–and detailed the amazing capabilities of why we see the way we do.

If it were up to academia, Changizi’s story might have ended there. “I started out in math and physics, trying to understand the beauty in these fields,” he says, “You are taught, or come to believe, that applying something useful is inherently not interesting.”

Not only did Changizi manage to beat that impulse out of himself, but he and Tim Barber, a friend from middle school, teamed up several years ago to form a joint research institute. 2AI Labs allows the pair to focus on research into cognition and perception in humans and machines, and then to commercialize it. The most recent project? A pair of glasses with filters that just happen to cure colorblindness.

Changizi and Barber didn’t set out to cure colorblindness. Changizi just put forth the idea that humans’ ability to see colors evolved to detect oxygenation and hemoglobin changes in the skin so they could tell if someone was scared, uncomfortable or unhealthy. “We as humans blush and blanche, regardless of overall skin tone,” Barber explains, “We associate color with emotion. People turn purple with anger in every culture.” Once Changizi fully understood the connection between color vision and blood physiology, Changizi determined it would be possible to build filters that aimed to enhance the ability to see those subtle changes by making veins more or less distinct–by sharpening the ability to see the red-green or blue-yellow parts of the spectrum. He and Barber then began the process of patenting their invention.

When they started thinking about commercial applications, Changizi and Barber both admit their minds went straight to television cameras. Changizi was fascinated by the possibilities of infusing an already-enhanced HDTV experience with the capacity to see colors even more clearly.

“We looked into cameras photo receptors and decided that producing a filter for a camera would be too difficult and expensive,” Barber says. The easiest possible approach was not electronic at all, he says. Instead, they worked to develop a lens that adjusts the color signal that hits the human eye and the O2Amp was born.

The patented lens technology simply perfects what the eye does naturally: it read the changes in skin tone brought on by a flush, bruise, or blanch. The filters can be used in a range of products from indoor lighting (especially for hospital trauma centers) to windows, to perhaps eventually face cream. For now, one of the most promising applications is in glasses that correct colorblindness.

As a veteran entrepreneur, founding Clickbank and Keynetics among other ventures, Barber wasn’t interested in chasing the perfect color filter for a demo pair of glasses. “If you look for perfection you could spend a million dollars. And it is just a waste of time,” he says. A bunch of prototypes were created, and rejected. Some were too shiny, others too iridescent. “We finally found something that worked to get the tone spectrum we wanted and to produce a more interesting view of the world.”

What they got was about 90 percent of the way to total color enhancement across three different types of lenses: Oxy-Iso, Hemo-Iso, and Oxy-Amp. While the Amp, which boosts the wearer’s general perception of blood oxygenation under the skin (your own vision, but better), is the centerpiece of the technology, it was the Oxy-Iso, the lens that isolates and enhances the red-green part of the spectrum, that generated some unexpected feedback from users. Changizi says the testers told them that the Oxy-Iso lens appeared to “cure” their colorblindness.

Changizi knew this was a possibility, as the filter concentrates enhancement exactly where red-green colorblind people have a block. Professor Daniel Bor, a red-green colorblind neuroscientist at the University of Sussex tried them and was practically giddy with the results. Changizi published Bor’s testimony on his blog: “When I first put one of them on [the Oxy-Iso,], I got a shiver of excitement at how vibrant and red lips, clothes and other objects around me seemed. I’ve just done a quick 8 plate Ishihara colour blindness test. I scored 0/8 without the specs (so obviously colour blind), but 8/8 with them on (normal colour vision)!”

Despite these early testimonials, the pair thought that the O2Amp glasses would be primarily picked up by hospitals. The Hemo-Iso filter enhances variations along the yellow-blue dimension, which makes it easier for healthcare providers to see veins. “It’s a little scary to think about people drawing blood who can’t see see the veins,” Barber says. EMT workers were enthusiastic users thanks to the Hemo-Iso’s capability of making bruising more visible.

From there, Barber and Changizi embarked on a two-year odyssey to find a manufacturer to make the eyewear that would enable them to sell commercially. Through 2AI Labs, they were able push their discoveries into mainstream applications without having to rely on grants; any funding they earn from their inventions is reinvested. They also forewent some of the traditional development steps. “We bootstrapped the bench testing and we didn’t do any market research,” Barber says.

Plenty of cold calling to potential manufacturers ensued. “As scientists talking to manufacturers, it seemed like we were speaking a different language,” Barber says. Not to mention looking strange as they walked around wearing the purple and green-tinted glasses at trade shows. Changizi says they finally got lucky last year and found a few manufacturers able to produce the specialized specs. All are available on Amazon for just under $300.

Changizi and Barber aren’t done yet. In addition to overseeing sales reps who are trying to get the glasses into the hands of more buyers, the two are in talks with companies such as Oakley and Ray-Ban to put the technology into sunglasses. Imagine, says Changizi, if you could more easily see if you are getting a sunburn at the beach despite the glare. They’re testing a mirrored O2Amp lens specially for poker players (think: all the better to see the flush of a bluffer). Changizi says they are also working with cosmetics companies to embed the technology in creams that would enhance the skin’s vasculature. Move over Hope in a Jar. Barber says it’s not clear how profitable any of this will be yet: “We just want the technology to be used.”

Spider constructs fake spider to fool enemies


This isn’t a real spider. It’s a decoy spider built from twigs, leaves, debris and dead insects.

Researchers discovered the spider in the Peruvian Amazon, and even though its decoy looks like a medium-sized spider that’s about an inch across, the impressive fake was actually made by a tiny, tricky 5-millimeter spider. That spider behind the curtain is probably, the researchers say, a new species of Cyclosa, a genus known to pull similar stunts. But those creations are relatively un-spider-like–nothing at this level of detail. The smaller builder-spider even moves back and forth, giving the impression that the decoy spider is moving and, in the process, confusing predators into attacking the decoy instead.

Amazon ships assault rifle to D.C. resident instead of TV

Seth Horvitz, a Northeast D.C. resident, thought he had ordered a new high-definition television a few days ago through from a third-party merchant. When the package arrived yesterday, however, Horvitz opened the oddly shaped box to find something completely different.

A very big gun.

Instead of the flat-panel TV he had bought to enjoy with his wife, who is pregnant, Horvitz opened the long packaging to discover a Sig Sauer SIG716, a high-caliber, semi-automatic assault weapon capable of mowing down, well, just about anything. Its manufacturer, Swiss Arms AG, describes it as “the rifle of choice when you require the power of a larger caliber carbine.” Awesome.

Not surprisingly, Horvitz and his wife, Seeta, were shocked to find a gun instead of the television they thought they had ordered. They called the Metropolitan Police Department right away. David Cole, a friend of Horvitz’s said that Seeta’s reaction was “basically ‘get that out of here now.’ ”

The District’s gun laws might have slackened in recent years, but assault weapons are still verboten, as is transporting them into or through the District. That’s why Horvitz had to call the police; it would have been illegal for him to pack it in his car and take it back to UPS for a return shipment. MPD officers confiscated the gun and are investigating why it wound up in a Northeast D.C. apartment building rather than the Pennsylvania gun shop it was intended to reach.

The box was dropped off in the hallway outside yesterday afternoon, with a 7.6 pound, 37-inch-long rifle sitting inside. The SIG716 carries a suggested retail price of $2,132.

“[Police] were a little confused at first, they’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Horvitz told Fox 5 last night.

Also, it’s not a television.

UPDATE, 10:45 a.m.: Ty Rogers, an Amazon spokesman, declined to say what the company is doing to remedy the situation.

RELATED: Our interview with Seth Horvitz.

Amazon’s Ceo Finds Lost Apollo 11 Rockets


Jeff Bezos, CEO of the online mega-retailer is preparing to recover the F1 engine that the Apollo 11 mission dropped when it left orbit. 

He says that a year ago, he wondered if it was possible to find and recover the engines, which are one of the ultimate icons of the 1960s space race. They found them 14,000 below the surface. Although they don’t know what state they are in after 40 years of being in saltwater, they’re hopeful that the materials are strong enough to withstand the test of time.

If they’re able to recover them, they would still be property of NASA, although Bezos is hopeful that they would make it available to display at the Smithsonian.