I had heard about it, but never run into one -- and for good reason: there are only two in the entire world. Then last week there it was, in Boca Raton, Fla., of all places.
This machine -- made by Kraft Foods and Intel -- could scan my face and tell me what I should cook, according to what I'd read on some blogs. Except that's not totally accurate, said Don King, Kraft's VP-retail experience. "It's never actually been the way it works," noted Mr. King, who was manning the machine at a meeting of financial analysts who cover the packaged-goods industry.
So I gave it a try to find out exactly what it does. But first some basics. The machine's formal name is the "Meal Planning Solution." It looks like a kiosk and consists of three 42-inch monitors mounted in a wood cabinet and powered by Intel processors. Designed to operate at a grocery store, the invention invites consumers to scan in their shopping lists and grocery-loyalty-card information that can be stored on Kraft's "iFood Assistant" mobile application.
Using a consumer's list and shopping history, it regurgitates suggested recipes and adds new items to the shopping list that are needed to cook the meals. Kraft has not deployed it anywhere yet, but is in discussions with unnamed retailers about possibly launching it soon.
"Shoppers struggle with 'What am I going to make?' every single night for dinner," Mr. King said. "This is designed to try to help that process go smoother." Along the way, it drives more purchases at the store, including more Kraft brands. And about that face scanning? I'll get to that later. Now to get started.
Mr. King scans in a card with a quick-response bar code, simulating the code that would normally be stored on my iFood assistant. This particular machine is programmed with a football theme. On the screen, I am greeted by a good-looking brunette named Ari, who is wearing a football jersey standing in what looks to be Soldier Field. I am asked for the "gameday conditions" -- dinner or snacks? I choose snacks.
I get four choices, including "smoky slaw dog," "Ritz Cheesy Football," and "Chili Snack Mix." (Where are the Tums, I'm thinking). I choose the snack mix. Up pops the recipe, telling me I need three cups of Premium brand saltine crackers, one can of Planters mixed nuts, a tablespoon of chili powder and some cumin and garlic powder. Plus there's an option for a "free sample." I'm hungry, and so I press it, and out pops a bag of Planters Honey Roasted Peanuts.
For Kraft, "it's a great chance to get new items in people's hands," Mr. King said. (Without paying someone to hand out the samples.) The screen also shows the recipe prep time (10 minutes). Sounds easy enough (famous last words), so I click the "add it" button." The ingredients at this point would be instantly added to my shopping list on my smartphone, and away I go.
But something else happened behind the scenes while I was busy looking at the lovely Ari. A small camera snapped my photo and scanned in an image of my face. Using video analytics technology, the machine derived my basic profile -- such as age and gender.
"The idea is for retailers to get feel for who's interacting with the thing," Mr. King said -- helping them determine which recipes are popular for whom by time of day and season, for instance. Does the machine store my personal data? Does it know who I am? Will it stalk me? No, said Mr. King. "A lot of people get freaked out about the camera. But the truth is, that's totally anonymous and the idea around it is just to collect anonymous information on the people who are in front of it."
So I'm wondering, does this mean I have to reintroduce myself to Ari next time I see her?