Food and Fun: The Eater-Tainment Dimension

June 1, 2011 No Comments

How much the association of entertainment methodology with established services such as retail, leisure and hospitality, is shaping new development in the “stay-cation” arena is never better illustrated by the growth of entertainment in the food sector.
Interactive amusement is touching the very heart of what is represented by the Hospitality sector (covering hotel, restaurants, taverns, bars and nightclubs) encompassing all aspects of the service industry. But the inclusion of pay-to-play entertainment is not a new concept
What Chuck E. Cheese’s (CEC) has so famously established across some 500 restaurants is based on the original concept innovated by Pizza Time Theatre in the 1970s (established by Atari and its legendary founder) that was then acquired to become the CEC operation we know today. The mixture of the amusement playing environment, linked to an animatronics’ entertainment within the eating area, were all borrowed from the larger entertainment venues of the time. This gave the location the ability to offer a family “eater-tainment” that mixed the attraction experience within the dining environment.
The fast food restaurant sector has been linked to the concept of a pay-to-play component to their operation since the first “Speak Easy” added a mechanical coin-op game to their bathtub gin prices in the 1920s. This was building on the previous midway and fairground business that had placed “food-on-the-go” (fast food) stands next to the amusements and attractions. It was a mentality carried over to carnivals, world’s fairs and eventually the theme park.
But in food retail, long before CEC, the emergence of video amusement had populated the pizza and fast-food and convenience store locality.  The social memory on the whole of arcade split between playing in dank arcades, against memories of linked up coins in sawdust littered pizzerias. But this nostalgic memory is being superseded by an emerging new market.
Attempts are being made in broadening the “eater-tainment” dynamic – with a greater mixing of the modern theming and digital entertainment technology within the eating experience, building on attempts first experimented in the 1990s and 2000s.
The famous Sony urban entertainment project, launched with the San Francisco METREON location in 1999, offered an advanced mix of indoor entertainment. The venue included the highly popular “In the Night Kitchen” themed restaurant that mixed the venue dining experience with a compelling attraction based on the popular children’s book series.
While on the digital side, uWink Bistro, founded by Nolan Bushnell, the champion of the CEC development, created a venue with self-service touchscreen terminals in front of every patron. This offers a multi-media experience, along with automatic ordering and the ability to play games and consume online media, achieving the companies’ hope to achieve a “entertainment dining experience.”
Though this concept of uWink seems to have foundered regarding the establishment of the brand – the use of table top self service (electronic point of sale (EPOS)) entertainment systems is being championed by other developers, such as Conceptic and their “eMenu” – as well as the CRAVE Interactive solution.
The touchscreen terminal builds on the popularity in the tavern and bar market of the bar top kiosks, one of the leading developers of the bar terminal game system is NTN Buzztime, Interactive Entertainment. The company’s “Buzztime” platform is established in over 4,000 bar and restaurant locations, with an installed base of over 6 million players in North America. The wireless player terminals linked to competitive play has seen 47 percent more spent by players of the system in venues. The increased dwell and spend are the key factors in this technologies importance.
The popularity of bar top terminals has seen the explosion in touchscreen systems, offering a level of casual gaming in a convenient hospitality package. Developers such as JVL offer their “ECHO” terminal system with a 22-inch screen and over 140 different games. Other manufactures, such as AMI and their “MegaTouch” platforms, offer a compendious downloadable content platform able to offer a compelling pay-to-play revenue generator for all kinds of venues.
Beyond the use of a touchscreen, the latest motion tracking projection systems have been combined to create full bar-top entertainment, such as the “E-Table” (also developed by Conceptic) who developed the innovative over-head projection system, projected onto the patron’s table allowing for ordering and multi media experiences. London’s INAMO bar is one of the first to show the power and compelling entertainment that this kind of platform offers compared to the traditional dining experience.
This concept of interactive surface projection (based on object tracking) has seen great development in impressive directions – and based on the Mindstorm infrastructure – the companies “iBar” technology creates a bar top that is digital and is able to interact with the patrons as well as their objects placed on the bar. Offering a multiple-touch surface that can actually recognize patrons individuals drinks and also for everyday objects to interact with the images projected. All this is part of what is called the “living surface” initiative to merge augmented reality technology into the eater-tainment environment.
As seen at the recent International Pizza Expo (IPE) – the love affair with pizza restaurants and pay-for-play systems continues – now some of the larger chains have expanded their entertainment environments with a bigger mix of the play and food.
Along with the continuing dependence in some venues for amusement systems; other technological applications are being used to build the patrons dwell time in the eater-tainment environment.  
One of the biggest developments is the dependence on communication with the patron through their mobile phone, the latest 3G smartphone technology offering a greater connectivity between the venue and their customer. One technology on display at the IPE event was the v-vouchers (virtual coupons). Products such as “MQPONS” offering a self-service, Web-based mobile message platform, a system offering venues a means to track customer communication through “mobile coupons.”
The developer ValuedPatron showed a app (smartphone downloaded application) software environment that offers a full mobile phone package with virtual-reward card, in-store customer capturer, virtual group buying, the patron just having to capture an image of the High Capacity Color Barcode (HCCB) on their phone for the app to be installed and the benefits of frequent use to be accumulated.
Though not exactly an entertainment component for the hospitality experience, the use of the patrons’ mobile phone is a means to use digital technology to connect with them, a means also being utilized in new attractions.
Seen at the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show (NCBS), beyond the conventional amusement systems that have found a home in the bar scene – such as pinball and bar-top terminals – a new generation of amusement platforms are finding a unique place in the hospitality mix.
One of those is Incredible Technologies, who have created a genre of games that have married perfectly with the needs of the bar and tavern sector. Championed by their outstandingly successful golf title, currently represented by the latest incarnation, “Golden Tee LIVE 2011,” IT have also created other titles that appeal on a casual gaming level, but also have the support of prize tournament play that adds a new level of sophistication. More recently this methodology has been employed in new releases “Target Toss Pro: Bags and Lawn Darts.”
Another popular tavern platform comes from the developer Play Mechanix, “Big Buck Hunter.” This big game sports shooter has grown into a tavern pastime for thousands of players supported by the tournament and league competition, again with cash prizes.
But a number of hospitality venues are looking to appeal to an even wider audience and encourage those more familiar with the latest home gaming consoles. However, the ability to just drop a console game into a venue as a means of revenue generation can be a complicated matter. That however is not the case with Quasimoto Interactive, who have created an entertainment solution with their “Game Gate VU: Let’s Active” offering. Not only a Microsoft XB360 pay-to-play system, but it is also a means to experience the consoles latest motion tracking technology in a public space environment – legally.
One aspect of the changing hospitality landscape is the greater utilization of social media, including direct links to the most popular social network Web services via the venue’s entertainment system.
One of the best examples of this work is a system in development by Apple Industries. Famous for their photo booth systems, the company has advanced the application launching their social network-enabled “PIXPLACE.” Aimed at tavern, bar and other high foot traffic locations is a kiosk photo capture platform with face recognition able to capture patrons’ images as they pass by the system. These candid snaps are compiled into an album of a visitor’s stay at a site. This platform was created to feed the social network needs of the patron (able to be shared on their Facebook or Myspace pages direct from the system), and generating that all-important repeat visitation for the venue.
The social networking angle is vital for future digital out-of-home entertainment platforms. Companies such as TouchTunes Interactive Networks have created their brand new “VIRTUO” touchscreen digital juke box to embrace a complete online capability, while also incorporating a 3G smart phone support app to allow music selection from patrons’ phones.
Finally, the development of the best atmosphere for the patron to linger and spend more time in is the dream of those applying the latest technology to the hospitality experience. The interactive entertainment experience however does not necessarily have to come from the traditional pay-to-play landscape. As seen with the “Game Gate,” the use of consumer game content to entertain the out-of-home audience still is of interest – bringing the home play experience into the hospitality scene.
One of those leading the way is the Chickies and Petes restaurant chain, who unveiled in 2009 PLAY: Interactive Sports Bar concept, the world’s first interactive sports bar comprising 18 semi-private booths equipped with 58-inch plasma TVs and lighting systems. Some of the booths have consoles for Xbox, Wii and PlayStation games, offering a better-than-home environment in which to socialize and play games.
Though not all the developments seen come from modern games – the retro amusement scene has a major part to play with the “Food-and-Fun” social audience. Venues such as the newly opened Insert Coin in Las Vegas mixes the retro gaming environment with a stylized bar and dinning experience in a stand-alone venue. The classic arcade machines that were the latest thing in the pizza parlours of the 1980s are now a draw to the latest social dining experiences.
As venues look towards increasing dwell time – patron spending and venue revenue generation capabilities – the entertainment experience through interactive play linked to a heavy social element seems to offer that opportunity. However the need to educate the hospitality sector into what we in the industry needs to be better prepared and served!
(Contributor Kevin Williams is founder and director of the out-of-home leisure entertainment consultancy KWP Limited and is founder and publisher of the e-Newsletters The Stinger Report and The Redemption Report & FEC. Reach him at www.thestingerreport.com/kwp.htm.)

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