The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

June 28, 2011

The Freedom of Too Much Choice

Filed under: Food — Tags: , , — Brian Lutz @ 2:26 am

For some time now, I’ve been trying to seriously cut back on drinking soda.  That’s not to say that I’m the type of person who is constantly guzzling down the stuff or anything like that, but  even though compared to some people I really don’t drink a whole lot of soda, I still get the sneaking suspicion that I’m probably drinking more of it than I should.  Even the fact that I have become, somewhat by necessity, a bit of a soda snob doesn’t seem to do much about this.  Even the slightest amount of caffeine in soda will keep me up half the night (and most of the time it ends up being the half of the night that my weird sleep schedule doesn’t keep me up) and when you throw sugar into the mix, it means that I’m up half the night AND climbing up the walls at the same time.  That means when I do drink soda, I need to stay away from the caffeinated stuff as much as possible, and should probably try to avoid the sugary stuff too.  This can result in very limited choices sometimes. 

Take the example above, from the Costco food court.  Back when they had Coke products in the soda machines, they actually had a reasonable (not great, but reasonable) selection of choices in the soda machines, so I could usually manage to find something to drink here.  A couple of years ago, following a pricing dispute with Coca-Cola that ultimately resulted in the temporary removal of all Coke products from the warehouses for about a month, Costco ultimately replaced the Coca-Cola products with Pepsi products.  And for some unknown reason, they decided that even though they have sixteen different spigots (or in some larger warehouses, 24) to work with in their soda fountains, they were only going to offer five options, three of which are caffeinated.  I’m sure you don’t have to go back too far to get back to a time when people would have been happy to have five choices to work with (presumably this was back in the days when you had choices of Coke, Sprite and maybe Dr Pepper if you were lucky) but especially given the fact that no fewer than twelve of the dispenser heads are being taken up by only three drinks (none of which I can really drink if I’d like to sleep anytime in the next eighteen hours) it just seems a bit ridiculous, and even at the now-famous $1.50 price for a Costco hot dog, makes the whole deal seem like a bit of a rip off really.  I’m sure someone could cite obscure economic reasons for doing it this way, but based on a bit of Internet research on prices for Pepsi bag-in-box products, they all pretty much cost the same price, which makes the whole thing seem more ridiculous. 

I suppose that to some extent, the annoyance that results from having the option of only five soda flavors  (only two of which I can drink without going completely bonkers) stems from the fact that society as a whole seems to have gotten used to having all sorts of options for pretty much everything these days.  My TV has some 200 channels on it (about four of which I watch on a regular basis,) and just in case I can’t find something to watch on there I’ve got a TiVo that can hold another 142 hours of recorded HDTV programming on it.  And if it weren’t for the fact that I might be the last person on Earth who doesn’t have a Netflix account I could find another half-zillion or so options on there.  If I want to listen to music I can just pull up Zune and listen to pretty much anything I can possibly think of within seconds.  I can go to Amazon and get any of their hundreds of thousands of products delivered to my door within a couple of days.  And yet if I want a cheap hotdog, it means I’m stuck with a choice between root beer or diet lemonade.  I suppose I could just go to Sam’s Club where the cheap hotdogs still come with a decent selection of drink choices, but that’s beside the point.

But thanks to the miracles of modern technology, there’s hope for us soda snobs, and it comes in the form of the Coca Cola Freestyle.  Although these machines are still experimental to at least some extent, they have begun popping up in a number of the local Taco Time restaurants (and it looks like the Blissberri Frozen Yogurt shop that’s going to be opening at Bellevue Square at some point in the near future is going to have one of these too,) replacing the more conventional soda fountains with the latest in beverage-dispensing technology.  Thanks largely to the use of Microdispensing technology that separates flavorings from sweeteners and allows for flavorings to be concentrated into much smaller spaces, the Coca Cola Freestyle machine can handle up to 125 different drink flavors, which are selected through a touchscreen interface.  Oh, and the ice dispenser built into the machine has the good kind of crunchy ice too.

 

Granted, most of the flavors being offered are just variations on the base Coca Cola flavors, but when was the last time you saw Caffeine Free Diet Cherry Coke in your local soda fountain?  Come to think of it, did the stuff even exist before the Coca-Cola Freestyle?

And while having 125 different drink choices available sounds like a soda enthusiast’s dream, it does pose an interesting dilemma:  You find yourself in front of the machine with a soda cup in hand, and start tapping at some of the options on the screen.  Just about everything on the main menu goes to a screen like you see above.  Sure, you might have decided after much deliberation that you’re in the mood for a Sprite, but did you want Sprite, Cherry Sprite, Orange Sprite, Peach Sprite, Strawberry Sprite, Raspberry Sprite, Grape Sprite or Vanilla Sprite?  And are you sure you didn’t really want Sprite Zero?  Or Fanta?  Or Fanta Zero?  Or something completely different in the first place?  Never in the course of human history has something as simple as a soda machine come with such a great risk of Analysis Paralysis.  And if you’ve got someone who already spent ten minutes staring at the menu board trying to figure out what to have for lunch, this seems  like the kind of thing that could put them completely over the edge.

 Granted, this is still new technology, and as cool as the whole thing sounds, we still don’t have any idea if it’s actually going to catch on with a wide audience.  But given the nature of the machine, it seems like steps could be taken to remedy this type of situation.  Perhaps some sort of recommendation UI could be added to the machine where a user could enter in some preferences (for example, they could say they want something that’s diet, non-caffeinated and in one of several flavors the user chooses) and suggestions could be made based on these choices.  Without the ability to store individual user preferences in any meaningful form it might prove an interesting challenge to figure out the best way to go about this, but something like a “most popular” list or a “Recommended” list wouldn’t be too hard to implement.  Regardless of what future direction Coca-Cola may decided to take with these machines, it’s still an interesting concept, and one I’d definitely like to see catch on, even if it does come with some pitfalls for someone as indecisive as I’ve been known to be on occasion.

And it’s certainly a whole heck of a lot better than having sixteen spigots on a soda fountain and only two viable options.  Soda, soda everywhere, and not a drop to drink…

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