Tap your iPad to order: Restaurant automation nobody needs

Self-checkout comes to the food court, with the same mixed experience as at any self-checkout terminal

iPad restaurant ordering terminal

An iPad Air used in OTG's restaurant ordering system at Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J.

Credit: Galen Gruman / InfoWorld

OTG, one of those companies that manages restaurants at airports, is very proud of its iPad deployment at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. More than 1,000 iPad Airs are in use at restaurant tables in the airport's food courts, letting travelers order food directly and pay on the spot -- no need to wait for a server to take your order or to process your payment.

I had a chance to check out this deployment on a recent trip, and I'm not sure OTG's pride is warranted. As we've seen in other automation efforts, such as those self-checkout stands at supermarkets and home-improvement stores, the reality is not as smooth as the promise. And the goal remains to remove human labor on the vendor side and have the customer pick up at least some of that work.

The OTG iPad deployment is a good example of the advantages and limitations of self-service technology, whether done via an iPad or any terminal device.

Using a device like the iPad to present menus allows for a more compelling display of options, with pictures, clickable details, and a running total of your order.

The OTG implementation certainly has pretty pictures of the food options, and the screen text is often easier to read than the paper menus at so many restaurants -- even in dim lighting. (In that regard, it's much nicer than the ordering system that Virgin America uses on its airplanes.)

But there's not much beyond that. If you want to check for possible food allergens or calorie counts -- the kind of data that a computer is good at looking up -- you won't get that here. The use of the iPad seems overkill for the task, frankly.

You will get access to basic apps, such as Safari, so you can entertain yourself while sitting alone awaiting your flight. But I suspect most travelers already have their own iPad for that. Still, I saw some folks use those tabletop iPads for more than food ordering.

Maybe it's my middle age, but I found having vertically mounted iPads in the middle of each table unpleasant. If you're with a companion, the tablets are in the way. (Fortunately, you can pull them out of their stands and move them, and they're tied to the table through a cable lock to prevent theft.)

I really don't need a screen in front of me everywhere I sit, and when I do, I have one with me I can pull out. (I feel the same way about the TV monitors built into airplane seats, or the ads shown on the screens on gas station pumps and ATMs.)

But I realize such devices can act as pacifiers for adults, whether they are alone or in a group -- we all have been at a table where everyone is glued to his or her own screen, and the OTG deployment is basically assuming that's the norm.

On a more practical level, the OTG deployment made the interesting assumption that everyone pays their own bills -- to order for the table and pay on one bill means using just one of the iPad terminals at the table. If each person orders on the iPad right in front of them, they each have to pay separately. That makes sense for business travel, but not so much for family travel. And there was no way to do a joint order across multiple terminals.

The server who led me to my seat offered to do a joint order for the table, explaining that one-bill-per-iPad assumption. She knew how to navigate the ordering app, so she was much quicker about it than I would have been. It's the same experience as at a self-checkout terminal: You're not as fast as an actual clerk, so it takes you longer to do it yourself. Over time, you learn the system -- it's safe to say that using a bank ATM is faster for most of us than having a human teller do the work -- but only if you use it a lot. If each airport has a different system, as retailers do, gaining that motor memory is very hard.

iPad restaurant ordering terminal nonfunctioning Galen Gruman / InfoWorld

At the airport at Newark, N.J., a server placed the iPad-based ordering systems face down when they weren't functioning correctly and had to take orders the old-fashioned way. (Here, the Flo payment system wasn't connecting.)

The OTG deployment also had a common problem with such automated systems: They don't always work. At my table, both of the credit card readers attached to the iPads didn't work, so we couldn't actually process the food order. The server went off to another terminal and ordered for us on it, after memorizing our order. (She confided that such terminal failures were common.)

If these devices get more commonplace, we won't have those servers who can memorize orders to work around the technology failures. Automation is meant to eliminate labor, and that means people. But automation has to be essentially flawless -- both operationally and with its user interface -- to be dependable, and that's hardly the norm. If you've used a self-checkout stand, you know how confusing and unreliably useful such systems are. Ticket machines for museums, transit systems, and so on are equally not ready for prime time and TV controls continue to befuddle humanity (bring back the dial!). ATMs are as close as we get, and they've been around for a couple of decades.

OTG's deployment is not a failure. Managing the 1,000 iPads and the ordering system behind it is no mean feat. But it's not a magical experience, either. Instead, it represents what's the norm in most automation deployments: a transfer of excess burden to the customer.

Surely, we can all do better.

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