LONDON — The company that has created one of the most successful Internet jukebox and video game networks in the United Kingdom is now exploring the application of its technology to vending machines. Inspired Broadcast Networks, a division of Leisure Link, the UK’s largest provider of coin-operated amusement and music services, has inked a deal with Coca-Cola in Ireland to test a digital vending concept that delivers a variety of content from the vending machine to the patron’s cell phone.
The IBN trial is being conducted with specially modified Coke machines, Dixie-Narco’s 5000 glassfront variable-package vender. The test began three months ago, and now includes 30 machines networked to the company’s content management system over broadband connections, including wireless ones.
According to Norman Crowley, IBN cofounder and co-chief executive, the added attraction of digital products is helping Coke sell more cold drinks.
For the test run, IBN outfitted the cold drink machine with a 17-in. touchscreen monitor, a new interface control board, a custom industrial computer, bill validators and credit-card terminals, along with DSL routers with WiFi and Bluetooth transceivers (to deliver the content), speakers (allowing patrons to preview selections) and optional headphones.
Once connected to the network, the vender can offer such digital products as mobile phone games, music downloads, concert tickets and WiFi access, and also allows patrons to “top up” prepaid accounts. Adding these products to a machine terminal – whether it’s a video game, a jukebox or a cold drink vender – is part of IBN’s “Urban Digital Vending” concept, which allows consumers to buy products and services from self-service equipment, using either credit cards or cash.
IBN’s content management first supported the “itbox,” a skill with prize (SWP) amusement machine terminal placed throughout British public houses (taverns). By the third quarter of 2005, there were more than 8,000 of them in operation throughout the UK. By the end of this year, 10,000 systems will be operating worldwide. “It’s the best-selling game machine,” Crowley said. IBN’s networking technology also is employed by the casino industry.
The company rolled out its digital music service for a jukebox called THE music one year ago, launching with an astonishing library of 2.1 million songs.
Crowley said that Leisure Link is closely monitoring developments in digital music in the U.S., and has been impressed by San Francisco-based Ecast’s solution, which provides digital jukebox content over a broadband network. “We thought: let’s invent a machine that can play every song that was recorded in the UK,” he recalled.
THE music is built by IBN and Entertainment UK, Europe’s largest music distributor. There now are more than 2,000 of these jukeboxes currently on location in the UK.
“Vending was the next logical extension for us,” the chief executive told VT. “Our flagship product, the ‘itbox,’ demonstrated that constantly refreshed content will increase revenue.”
The IBN founder recalled that the inspiration for digital vending came to him while he was marooned at London’s Heathrow airport last year. “There were lots of vending machines scattered throughout the airport, but very few people were using them,” he recalled.
“So we approached Coke and told them that we believe we can double their beverage sales. Coke replied, ‘prove it,’” Crowley said.
The evidence was readily available, he continued. “Our itbox demonstrated that live networking technology can improve income by continually refreshing content,” he pointed out.
According to Crowley, the game system is earning better than 50% compared with traditional SWP machines. “And we learned that advertising on networked machines is not going to generate additional revenue,” he said. “So we created the concept of digital vending – offering digital products at the point of sale.” And the result, Crowley said, is that Coke is selling more beverages.
Crowley reports that IBN and Coca-Cola are discussing a worldwide rollout of the digital vending program. He believes this technology is inevitable in the U.S. market, and says that IBN is looking for a partner there to launch the concept.
“Today, there are so many things that can be bought digitally,” he said. “The vending machine can become the digital corner shop.”
He instances the limited music selection at a Virgin Mega Store. “They carry 5,000 CDs in inventory, while we have music tracks from more than 110,000 CDs.
“Inspired Broadcast Networks brings networking and digital technologies to coin-op,” Crowley added. “Its purpose is to put more money in the cashbox.”
Inspired has only been in the coin-operated machine industry since 2001. It’s 70% owned by Leisure Link Group, which operates more than 90,000 games and jukeboxes in approximately 30,000 venues. Leisure Link and Inspired Technology Group, originally an Irish hi-tech company founded by Crowley in 2001, formed Inspired Broadcast Networks in 2002. The company maintains a website at inspiredbroadcast.net.