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Facial Recognition In Restaurants: Future Of Food Ordering?

Facial recognition technology is here to stay – and some are already notching up their usability to greater levels!

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Toast & Tonic: A place where the simple pleasures of life find a place on the menu

You enter your local fast food joint, and behold – there are no order counters! All you see are big screens and a few kiosks on the side. You step up to the big screen – and face it. A pop-up appears on the screen below accompanied by a quick jingle – would you want to order ‘Crispy fried chicken burgers’? Bingo – and that was what you had ordered when you visited the same chain of the store in another town you gad gone to last week! Welcome to the ‘smart restaurant’ – where Facial recognition is the buzzword.

The scenario played out above is no new – a few fast-food chains have already been experimenting with similar tech-infused ordering, where aside of recommended re-orders based on facial recognition, the screen would make food suggestions based on gender, age and yes – mood! As they say – ‘Don’t worry, Be happy’ – you never know a sad face might dole out suggestions for sprout salad instead of crunchy cheese topped burger? Scary.

As it turns out, a male, 20-year old might be recommended ‘crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and coke’ for lunch, while a female in her 50s might have to settle with ‘porridge and soybean milk’ for breakfast. Oopsie!

In general, such roll-outs have been met with euphemism as also criticism. A couple of things that stand out from among those who are skeptical of this technology are:

* Suggestive reordering based on age goes by stereotypes. While porridge and soybean milk for 50-year-old is a good thing, a craving for battered-fried chicken may not be unworldly – so essentially, the technology gets swirled into stereotypical patterns. Well, until the tech gets more ‘intelligent’ that is – with more data points getting built into the recommendation engine.

* Facial database images getting stored might have unpleasant consequences, and customers might resent to their faces getting peacefully saved in some server or cloud when they order from their favourite restaurants. In due justice to them, all they need might be some crispy tangy burgers, not how their faces look like getting stored up!

But then, that is not to say the positives are not good enough. One of the earlier studies to self-ordering found that self-service removes the fear of being misunderstood or appearing unsophisticated in front of sales clerks. Also, for complex item names, self-service is easier.

Top-notch it up a tad, few speciality restaurant chains in the US have also started playing around with facial recognition POS (Point of Sale) systems. For the first time, when customers order using in-store kiosks, As it turns out, a male, 20-year old might be recommended ‘crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and coke’ for lunch, while a female in her 50s might have to settle with ‘porridge and soybean milk’ for breakfast. Oopsie! 2 they will be prompted to save their facial image to their account. By saving your facial image, when you order the next time, your past orders will be brought up, as also you will be generating points (similar to reward points), and they can be used for free food and drinks.

"Facial recognition is part of our broader strategy to enable the restaurant and retail industries to provide the same kinds of benefits and conveniences in the built world that customers experience with retailers like Amazon in the digital world," said the Chairman & CEO of one such CAheadquartered fast-evolving food chain.

The concept of facial recognition has its precursor in eye-tracking technology that has been in vogue since a while now. In general, eye-tracking sensors provide two main benefits. First, it makes a device-aware of what the user is interested in at any given point in time. And second, it provides an additional way to interact with content, without taking anything else away. That means it increases the communication bandwidth between the user and the device. With the advancement of new open-source platforms, more potent and less expensive hardware, and faster ways to train algorithm models, eye-tracking tech has got a furthermore fillip to its headway.

A similar thrust is (or would be) visible in Facial recognition technology. Going a step forward, facial recognition is also being used for payments. Restaurants are coming up with novel concepts like ‘Smile to Pay’, that allows customers to smile and pay while looking at the instore camera. The fact is, facial recognition technology takes about 2 seconds to scan one’s face using 3-D camera, and that is backed by a ‘live-ness detection algorithm’ to avoid fraud. These are oftentimes intertwined with payment platforms, to make the entire process of ordering to payments a seamless and joyful activity.

While the technology is still in its infant stage of adoption, more active usage by Amazon, Facebook, Apple and the likes will perk up adoption rates and greater customer acceptance.

Facial recognition technology is here to stay – and some are already notching up their usability to greater levels! A leading Dutch coffee company probably draws the icing on the cake in this – counting the number of yawns of customers, the vending machines of the company using facial recognition doled out free coffees to passengers in the airport. It was all part of a marketing campaign though – dubbed “Bye Bye Red Eye”. Now, whosoever knew yawns can be so darn ‘productive’?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Debraj Bhattacharya

The author is a strategy consultant, working with clients across the US and APAC, primarily from the consumer sector, retail, F&B, manufacturing space.

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