Webpad Applications

Las Vegas' Aureole Restaurant uses SONICblue ProGear webpad
(September 2001 issue)

Web tablets, otherwise known as "information appliances" or "web pads," have had a hard time recently. With 3Com suddenly announcing Audrey's death a few months ago, and with more than a few columnists in the trade press tolling the bell for a market that's never really taken off, it's been pretty difficult to find any positive news about webpads. Well, score one for the good guys-this is a story about a good vertical application for frontpath's webpad, the ProGear.

Electronic winelist

The application is an electronic winelist at Aureole, a high-end restaurant in the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino Hotel in Las Vegas. Aureole, with 360 seats (not counting the bar), has 3,500 wine selections, so their traditional hardcopy winelist runs 50+ pages. With an average of three deletions and four additions per day, and all the "wines by the glass" changing every day, maintenance of the winelist is a never-ending task. At an average price of $100 to $150 per bottle, the restaurant can easily sell $50,000 worth of wine in an evening.

Current-vintage wine is stored in the "wine tower," a 42-foot-tall, glass-enclosed Plexiglas structure in the restaurant (sort of a reverse wine cellar). When a patron orders wine, a "wine angel" retrieves it. What's a "wine angel," you ask? Keep in mind we're talking about Las Vegas here! A "wine angel" is a wine steward in the form of an attractive young woman, dressed in a black cat suit, who rappels up and down the tower using a modified climbing rig. Most of the wine angels are professional dancers, rock climbers or acrobats. It takes a wine angel (equipped with a printer, an intercom and a wine bottle holster) about ten seconds to go from the ground to the top of the wine tower.

The brainstorm and driving force to automate the winelist came from Andrew Vadjinia, the wine director at Aureole. He's a self-described "tech geek with a wireless iPAQ." Actually he's a world-class wine expert, able to describe and differentiate hundreds of wines from any region of the world at a moment's notice. Andrew personally wrote the specification for the application, selected the hardware supplier (frontpath, Inc., in Santa Clara, www.frontpath.com), selected the software developer (REDoctober Industrie in Seattle, www.redoctober.com), and managed every phase of the implementation.

Client hardware

The key to the application is frontpath's ProGear webpad. Currently 15 webpads are connected to a Unix content server via a Lucent IEEE 802.11b wireless LAN; a total of 30 webpads are planned for use in the restaurant. A standard Lucent (ORiNOCO) wireless LAN PC card is used in the webpad. According to Andrew, frontpath is working on putting an internal antenna inside the ProGear device, to eliminate having the PC card antenna stick out the side.

Andrew surveyed all of the webpad manufacturers that he could find, as well as manufacturers of full-PC pen tablets such as Fujitsu and of e-books such as Gemstar. He settled on frontpath because of the ProGear's "size, weight distribution, minimal user controls, solid feel, screen readability, screen resolution, sensitive touchscreen, ease of wireless integration, and (last but definitely not least) price." Andrew's requirement for "minimal user controls" is typical of many vertical applications where the user is not expected to be computer literate. The fewer controls there are, the less opportunity the user has to do something wrong. Frontpath's approach to user controls (e.g., screen brightness) is to provide a "system taskbar" that pops up across the bottom of the screen when the scroll button is depressed. The application software disables the scroll button and the taskbar completely, since (a) the application is entirely page-based with no scrolling, and (b) the user can't change anything on the system, not even the screen brightness (which is left at maximum all the time). Andrew also felt that non-computer literate users would find the scroll button "scary and uncomfortable to use."

Although the ProGear has a touchscreen, guests are asked to use a stylus because their hands may be greasy. The "hotspots" on the application screens are typically larger than their surrounding graphic boxes, to make it easy to touch the right place. So far, Andrew has not observed anyone having problems with palm rejection. The application does not include handwriting recognition or data entry of any kind, eliminating the user's need to rest the edge of his palm on the screen while holding the stylus.

The webpad uses the optional (6-cell) battery rather than the standard battery. Andrew found that the optional battery was required to provide sufficient battery life for the ProGear to last through the five-hour evening shift with just a little recharging. He also found that the optional battery's slight bulge and rubber covering actually makes holding the ProGear device more comfortable. Running continuously with the backlight at full intensity, Andrew has observed typical battery life of 3 to 3.5 hours (versus a spec of six hours, probably based on less demanding conditions). The restaurant has acquired two gang battery chargers, each of which holds16 webpads. Between uses, the webpads stay in the battery chargers.

During use, the webpad is initially laid on the "base plate"-that empty, seemingly useless plate that's already on the table in a good restaurant when you first sit down. Some guests use the webpad lying flat on the base plate, some hold it at an angle against the edge of the table, and some hold it fully in their lap. No customer has dropped one of the webpads yet, in the six weeks that the application has been in operation. Andrew compares the situation to handing a camera to someone and asking him or her to take a picture-the person you hand the camera to almost never drops it.

Wireless network

The wireless network design and installation was accomplished by cyberPIXIE, Inc. in Chicago (www.cyberpixie.com), frontpath's strategic partner (wireless VAR) in the hospitality market. To provide the wireless infrastructure, cyberPIXIE installed three access points in the restaurant's ceiling, which required pulling a few cables. The three access points provide "full-speed wireless connection everywhere in the restaurant." According to Andrew, "installing and setting up the wireless network was probably one of the easiest parts of the whole project." That's fairly indicative of where WiFi (another name for IEEE 802.11b) is today-it's a mature technology ready for mass adoption.

Application software

The ProGear webpad runs Linux 2.4 as its native OS. The primary application platform is Netscape 4.7 (Internet Explorer is not available in a Linux version). The entire application-developed by REDoctober in about eight man-weeks, including test time-was written in XML using Macromedia's Flash 5. XML was used rather than HTML because it gives the developer much greater flexibility in formatting information, and the output simply looks better. Flash has built-in XML sockets, so it minimizes development effort. The application required no actual development under Linux except for the connectivity to the server, which was accomplished by cyberPIXIE using an FTP script.

The application initially pops up a full-screen window that masks any evidence of Netscape. Some items are hard to mask consistently, such as the Netscape title bar. REDoctober is tinkering with "Java workarounds" for these problems, but they're finding that doing this under Linux is "pretty hairy."

The application includes some simple canned video clips. REDoctober tried using the RealPlayer plug-in to display the video clips, but found that the quality wasn't good enough (it's optimized for streaming video online). Since QuickTime-the desired solution-wasn't available under Linux, REDoctober simulated video by using a sequence of images at 30 fps in Flash. Andi Rusu, the founder and art director at REDoctober, said that "if Windows had been available on the frontpath, we would have used Internet Explorer with the Flash 5 plug-in and the QuickTime plug-in, which would have made the application easier to develop."

What if Aureole wants to move to a Windows CE device in the future, for some reason? A Flash plug-in for IE is under development by Macromedia, so once it's available, the application can be moved onto the new platform with zero porting effort. That's one of the basic advantages of a webpad-it's just a browser platform. Any hardware that supports a browser with the appropriate plug-ins can be used.

System operation

Every night, Andrew updates a set of Excel spreadsheets on a Windows 2000 content publishing server with all of the day's inventory changes. After the changes are fed from Excel into an Access database, the data is converted into 1,500 XML files averaging 100 bytes each and published onto an FTP server. A Unix server located between the webpads and the Windows 2000 server acts as both a DHCP server and a proxy server for the webpads. Whenever a webpad is rebooted, the files in the browser's cache are compared with the files on the FTP server, and new or modified files are automatically downloaded over the wireless network into the cache. (It's very fast, taking only a few seconds for each webpad.) All of the data for the current application fits in 1 MB, so the hard disk could be replaced with flash-except that Andrew plans to add a lot more video clips in the near future (e.g., videos on featured winemakers), which will require the capacity of the hard disk.

If all this sounds like a batch application, you're right. To reduce risk in the first phase of the project, Andrew decided to limit the wireless interaction between the webpads and the FTP server to boot-time only. But there's no reason why the wireless interaction couldn't take place on a timer basis in the client or on a push basis from the server. In fact, Andrew plans to take the system "totally wireless" in about four months.

Why have any data resident in the webpad instead of getting it off the server as needed? The primary reason is protection against power brownouts or hardware failure in the network. If the webpads always have a copy of the XML data files locally, then the system is foolproof. Another advantage is that the webpad can be taken out of the restaurant and still be useable.

Implementation issues

According to Andrew, the most difficult part of this project was designing an application that wouldn't intimidate the guests. In addition, minor things such as optimizing the screen layouts for right-handed people also took a while. After the application design, the Access database was the next most difficult aspect. It also took some work with frontpath to ensure that the system taskbar never popped up unexpectedly (frontpath's developers didn't appreciate how important it is for software developers to control 100% of the screen real estate). And after that, "nothing much else-it wasn't a very difficult project."

Cost justification

The starting budget for this project was about $120,000 for hardware and software. Aureole is known as having one of the ten best wine programs in the world; the publicity associated with this project is further amplifying that reputation. The application is turning out to be "a powerful tool for marketing wine." An estimated 25% of Aureole's new customers come because of publicity about the electronic winelist application. Andrew is receiving dozens of joint marketing requests from wine sources and distributors. Due to all this, Andrew is confident that he can recover the project's cost in less than six months.

The future

In the big picture, the winelist application is a part of an overall initiative by Aureole to enhance the customer's experience by providing full service before, during and after a visit to the restaurant. To that end, Andrew plans to significantly overhaul the restaurant's website in the next two months, integrating much of what's been done for the winelist application. Customers will be able to reserve wines in advance, access the website from the table while they're in the restaurant, and communicate with the wine staff after they leave-for example, to ask for assistance in locating another bottle of a wine that they really enjoyed. Other features that Andrew plans to add to the application include winemaker profiling, graphical wine reviews, scans of wine labels, customer profiles and (eventually) integration with the food service.

In most vertical applications, the initial installation is a pilot test, and Aureole's electronic winelist is no exception. When the system is fully developed in about six months, Andrew expects to roll it out to other Charlie Palmer restaurants.

So is the paper winelist gone forever? No, it's still in existence. Andrew believes that Aureole will always need 5-8 copies of the paper winelist, updated every couple of weeks, for people who simply refuse to use the webpad. After all, the customer is king-you can't force a customer to do something he doesn't want to do.

Based in Silicon Valley, Geoff Walker is a consultant with Walker Mobile. Geoff has worked on the engineering and marketing of pen computers since 1990 at GRiD Systems, Fujitsu Personal Systems (now Fujitsu PC) and Handspring. He can be contacted at geoff.walker@att.net.