If you're a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool gadget freak, Popcorn, Indiana LLC may have a design task for you.
The maker and seller of snack foods recently introduced the Popinator, which it calls a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." In videos, the device reacts to the spoken word "pop" by launching a kernel of popcorn into someone's mouth.
It's supposed to be a novelty -- a modern-day, mechanized version of the Pet Rock. And public reaction to it has been virtually off the charts. A YouTube video from the company (at the bottom of this post) has drawn 1.7 million hits. National and local television news shows have featured it, and newspapers around the country have written about it.
Popcorn, Indiana calls its Popinator a "fully automated, voice activated popcorn shooter." (Source: Popcorn, Indiana)
The problem with the machine is it doesn't work -- at least not in the way described in the company's video. "It does shoot popcorn, but it is remote-operated, not voice," Amanda Tiberi, marketing coordinator for Popcorn, Indiana, told us in an email. "It does exist, but only one, and it is a prototype in our office."
The video claims otherwise. "The Popinator uses a binaural microphone system, which is similar to the way the human hearing system works," says Ted, an electrical engineer seen in the video. "Basically, it is able to calculate, using the small differences in the arrival time of sound waves and their reflections, where a sound originated from."
Technically, Ted's description sounds good. But when a CNN reporter tried to use the device, it launched popcorn all over the floor. And it didn't react to the word "pop." It wasn't clear if the binaural microphones were even installed.
Of course, Popcorn, Indiana's idea -- post an embellished video on the Web, wait for it to go viral, and reap the name-recognition benefits -- isn't new. In truth, it's no different from what Volkswagen did this year with the Hover Car we discussed in June. In terms of plausibility, however, the Popinator and the Hover Car are in different leagues.
Randy Frank, an expert in sensing technology, told us it would be feasible for the Popinator to have a binaural MEMS audio sensor, which is often used in smartphones. Moreover, there's no reason the device couldn't find the source of the sound and launch a kernel in the appropriate direction. "Using a reasonably sophisticated software algorithm and some sensor fusion, you can make that projectile travel accurately to the direction of the sound."
The project could be expensive and could have its challenges. "Any time you do voice activation, you have to worry about false triggers," he said. "You don't want this thing shooting popcorn at your dog every time it barks, and that takes some engineering expertise. It's not trivial."
Can it be done? Popcorn, Indiana (which, by the way, is located in New Jersey) isn't asking for our help. But we encourage readers to weigh in with a comment. After all, who hasn't dreamed of owning a voice-activated machine that shoots popcorn into your mouth?
At first after seeing the video, I thought you might have stumbled across something that could be a Saturday Night Live skit. Then I thought, those offices. Pretty cushy for a bunch of young folk that should essentially be operating out of someone's garage if that was their sole offering. Then I realized this is a project orchestrated by a popcorn manufacturing company. (Love their products, BTW--the kettle corn flavor is awesome!). Any way, I guess the Popinator is cool in concept and maybe even innovative if it does indeed incorporate some of that more novel sensing and voice activation technology. But changing the way people eat popcorn and getting them to shell out bucks for a machine like that. Maybe in a dorm room, but I prefer the bag just fine, thank you very much.
Randy Frank may be onto something when he says that a barking dog could potentially trigger this machine (if it actually existed in real ife). It's safe to say that it wouldn't take long for the dog to figure out that it gets a tasy treat everytime it barks.
Beth, I agree, this would definitely be in a hit in the dorms. Throw in the beer-throwing fridge (over 21 only, please), and you'd be the most popular kid on campus!
Cool video, but I can understand why this gadget is not ready for prime time. For one, the algorithm would have to measure individual voices at various distances to determine the trajectory. Even so, it looks like the only configuration is the velocity of the kernel. And that would vary depending on each kernel. Popcorn kernels are certainly not uniform.
Couldn't find video from Saturday Night Live, but did find this mention of the Popinator on SNL Weekend Update in September:
SETH MEYERS – "A new device is being sold called the "Popinator," which is a voice-activated popcorn machine that launches a single piece of popcorn into the user's mouth. The device is activated by the phrase "I'm so lonely.""
Thanks for that clip. It really looked in keeping with the SNL style. Maybe they purposely filmed it that way. Even if the machine was ready for prime time in terms of design and manufacturing ability, I really don't see any kind of market for this behind the goof factor of fraternity's and maybe tech startups where they can put the Popinator to work and down the popcorn with a side of Jolt.
Design engineers need to prepare for a future in which their electronic products will use not just one or two, but possibly many user interfaces that involve touch, vision, gestures, and even eye movements.
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