Guest post: Chris Matyszczyk explores the latest high-tech concept in dining from Nolan Bushnell, of Chuck E. Cheese and Atari fame.
We all have our bad waiter stories. I confess that recently, in Europe, I sat in a restaurant for almost an hour waiting for a bill that never arrived. Yes, I do mean never.
And last year I was in a restaurant when a waiter delivered a plate to me and mused beyond his ganja haze:
"What did you order?"
"Fish," I said.
"Well, I got you chicken," he said with a smile that vaguely reminded my of the sincerity of Senator Larry Craig.
But now we have uWink. This is a new restaurant chain that doesn't eliminate waiters as much as castrate them. uWink advertises itself with three words that make any techie salivate: Food. Drinks. Media.
The latest venture from Nolan Bushnell, former CEO of those very similar companies, Chuck E. Cheese and Atari, uWink dispenses with the need to give your order to a waiter. Instead, you have a touch screen, very similar to the ones wait staff use to transmit your order to kitchens. Or airlines use to make you do their work for them.
Clearly, the idea is that no theology student or highly talented out-of-work actor/dancer/comedian can possibly get your order wrong. So the tech world contributes yet another joist to the sturdy foundation that is world efficiency. In fact, uWink's claims that its software approach to ordering will reduce labor costs by approximately 5 percent.
However, uWink goes further in its attempt to improve human interaction. Because it is more than likely that the people you are having dinner with are duller than a Wisconsin pond at midnight, you can also use the ordering screens to play video games. (It's what Bushnell calls "social gaming," which includes basic rules such as "the game controller must be as easy to use as a fork," and "games must be classy or funny, not coarse or vulgar.")
"Darling, you said you had something special to say to me tonight," she said, looking lovingly into his eyes. "Damn, the red square touched my black square! I lost!" he replied looking hatingly at the screen.
Squares is just one of the games your ordering screen has to offer. There is Zillionaire, which is, apparently, just like Who Wants to be a Millionaire "only a zillion times better."
What, we get a zillion Meredith Vieras? A zillion Regis Philbins? Or perhaps we get the chance to phone a zillion friends around the world to get our answers? Can we poll everyone in the restaurant in an Ask the Audience feature?
Then there is the utterly engrossing Trielevator. I cannot compete with the power of the sell on uWink's own website: "This is a fast paced game where you stack cards on top of each other in numerical order from least to greatest or greatest to least. As you clear the levels you get extra points!"
I have always wanted to stack cards on top of each other in a restaurant. Just as I have always wanted extra points. But I am not sure the uWink method is the way I would ideally choose.
To be fair to uWink (oh, please, I am able to do this) the games do have multiplayer options. The screens, however, do not appear to have a "does the cabernet come out of a box?" option. Or a "is this meat beef or horse?" option. Or even a "is tonight's chef sober?" option.
I imagine one of my greatest dilemmas, were I to inadvertantly stumble into a uWink franchise, would lie in trying to decide whether to tip the person who brought my food out (as it appears they have not managed to co-develop food-carrying robots with David Levy or any other disciple of singularity) or to tip the machine for its never-ending supply of card-stacking entertainment.
Yet as the world hurtles in the never-ending quest of lowering costs and heightening entertainment, I would love to see the concept taken up by restaurants of a more elevated nature.
I can just see the famous French Laundry allowing you to take Mensa tests while waiting for Hubert Keller's kitchen to raise your palate to a Pavlovian pitch.
I can definitely imagine Alain Ducasse using the screens to teach dumb foreigners for once, just once, to pronounce ONE French dish correctly. "REPETEZ! FWA GRA!! NOT FOYE GRASS!!!"
And wouldn't you just adore it if Gordon Ramsay, a man who uses the f-word even more than your average offensive lineman, got together with those adorable entertainers at Ultimate Fighting and used the screens to show you the optimal maneuvers involved in punching out a slapdash sous-chef?
For those of you who wish to hotfoot it this instant to have a quick uWink, it appears from their Web site that there is only one franchise, situated in the Westfield Promenade in Woodland Hills, California.
I am heartened that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the dominant business sector in the area is "Professional, Scientific and Technical Services." By a margin of two to one.