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Building a better bar-bot

Univ. of Wash. via YouTube
Robby Connor demonstrates the drink mixer in a University of Washington lab.

If you're looking for a buzz on New Year's Eve, consider the automatic wireless drink mixer - a student-built contraption that is generating a fresh wave of buzz on the Internet.

The homebrew bartender-bot was built by Robby Connor, Richard Evan Cross and Zach Rasmor for an electrical engineering class at the University of Washington last spring. "We all got A's on it," Connor told me this week.

The guy who gave them the A's said they richly deserved the grade.

"They took all of the stuff that they had learned and brought it together in a nice way," James Peckol, senior lecturer in electrical engineering at UW. "And more than that, they had fun doing it. They invented some weird drinks. One of their drinks was a mix of Coke and cranberry juice, which actually tastes good. They called it a 'Cokenberry.'" (Alcoholic beverages weren't allowed in the lab.)

Peckol said the beauty of the bar-bot project was how the students combined a variety of technologies to come up with "something that, within all of our projects, no one has ever done before."

Although the students' video clip about the project has been up on YouTube for months, it's just now getting traction in the blogosphere - perhaps in part because this is the season of holiday cheer.

YouTube video features the automatic wireless drink mixer.

Up to four different beverages can be tanked up in large plastic bottles hanging over the bar-bot's electronic brain and plastic plumbing. Servo motors are attached to valves, set up to meter out the right mix of ingredients into a waiting cup. Pre-established drink recipes can be stored in the bot's memory chips, and patrons can also specify their own drink mix on a remote-control touch pad. Drink orders are transmitted wirelessly from the pad to the bot.

The cup receptacle includes an infrared sensor that makes sure a cup is actually present before a drink is poured. Cross programmed the sensor to compensate for ambient light, so that the machine can be just as spill-proof in a dark pub or a bright fern bar. The cups can also be equipped with RFID chips that basically tell the bot what you had during the last round of drinks.

The whole thing cost a few hundred dollars to put together, Rasmor said. "It was a lot of commercial, off-the-shelf stuff," he told me.

"We actually did think about patenting it," Connor said, "but it isn't at this stage good enough to do something like that. It's not commercializable yet. You can order a drink from afar, which is a cool thing, but you still have to actually walk up and get the drink."

That's not necessarily a bad thing. I can easily imagine a techno-tavern where you order your drink from one of several mixing stations at the bar - perhaps the station where the cute guys or gals are hovering, or where the robotics club is working on the latest plan for world domination. XCOR Aerospace's Mike Massee recalls a recent space conference where a remote-controlled drink mixer known as the "CosmoBot" was the hit of the party. (Click on the following links to see pictures of the 007-themed control panel and the CosmoBot itself, courtesy of Massee.)

Cross said the software coding might be the most innovative part of the University of Washington's bar-bot. "I would be very interested in getting it out there and seeing if there's a demand for it," he told me today. When I suggested going open source with the code, he said, "I'll certainly look into that."

On another, arguably more important level, the project was a smashing success: Not only did the three students get A's in the class, but they also got jobs after graduating. Connor works for W.L. Gore & Associates in the medical field; Rasmor works for Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Services in the defense field; and Cross is at Accenture Systems in Houston, helping design a new crude-oil trading system for Shell.

Will Cross be designing new drinks for the bar-bot as well? Since the class ended, the machine hasn't been put back into service - which means it's never been used for anything more intoxicating than a Cokenberry.

Right now, Cross has custody of the mixing apparatus, and if he wants to have it ready for a New Year's Eve party, he's running out of time. "I haven't had plans to do that yet - but it's a good idea, and it's not out of the realm of possibility," he said. "I need a power supply...."

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