Behind the Work: Y&R and VML Create Robo-Fountain for Drink Up Initiative

Talking Water Dispenser Encourages Users to Drink More Water

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How about a little chit chat while you hydrate? Y&R, New York, and digital agency VML, New York, collaborated with the Partnership for a Healthier America to create a water fountain that starts talking when drinkers' lips touch the water. It's part of a new campaign to promote Drink Up, an initiative to encourage Americans to drink more H20.

PHA and its honorary chair, First Lady Michelle Obama, work across the public and private sectors to promote healthy physical and dietary choices in America. Last September, the non-profit and non-partisan organization started Drink Up and nearly a year after inception, the organization has launched a tech-driven camapaign to get the word out.

"We do everything we can to not look like your father's public health campaign," said PHA CMO Drew Nannis. The Drink Up Fountain, part of the #spreadthewater initiative, offers up greetings and encouragement to passersby pausing for a quick sip. "It doesn't preach hydration facts or ounces consumed per day," said Mr. Nannis, because its purpose is simply to encourage people to drink more water on a regular basis.

"It's always a challenge when you're not promoting a specific product, but just a category," said Mr. Nannis.

Talk Is Incentive
The chatty dispenser, built with the help of interactive design collective YesYesNo, provides actual incentive to keep drinking. The talking stops every time the thirsty pedestrians' lips leave the stream of water. Those curious as to where the fountain's pep talk is going or how it's going to end have to keep drinking to find out. "The more you drink, the more content you listen to," said Harsh Kapadia, a senior creative at VML New York.

The fountain began as a less sophisticated prototype. The VML team used Arduino, MaKey MaKey and Raspberry Pi -- hardware pieces that run on low voltages and plug into software -- along with alligator clips to set up an in-office demonstration with cups of water and sample sound bites. "We did a lot of testing to see how long people drink water so we could line up audio files to it," said Mr. Kapadia. If words ended too abruptly, the voiceover would have to work hard to correct his diction and maintain his cadence.

Making sure the water condensed properly was also a concern, if it was too hot, it would not be enjoyable; if too cold, it could ruin all of the electronics inside. The perfect setting ended up being just a little cooler than room temperature

Once the basic kinks were worked out, the YesYesNo team tweaked the software to work with a fountain it fabricated. Eight weeks later, the team created two working devices.

For the campaign launch, Y&R placed one fountain at New York City's popular Brooklyn Bridge Park with cameras hidden close by to catch people's startled reactions. "We put it in a busy public space where it wouldn't seem out of the ordinary and people are likely to drink up," Y&R creative director Bruce Jacobson explained.

More Water to Flow
This stunt is just the beginning, though. "We're hoping to contextualize it a little bit more," he said. He and his team are currently toying with the idea of bringing it to events, like red carpets and expanding on the concept that anything you do is enhanced by drinking water. Mr. Kapadia hopes it becomes a more permanent fixture across the U.S. "we're treating it like a prototype," he said.

As Drink Up's one year anniversary comes up, there will be additional contests and giveaways, but the fountains will continue to be the most promoted component over the next few weeks. "They're immensely portable and we can adjust what they say, so we plan to move them around the country to different events and places," said Mr. Nannis.

The fountains have also become part of a fact-finding mission, explained Mr. Harris. "We're curious to see who it appeals to. It has wide potential, but we'll promote it more with some regional targets to see."

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