Textspresso dials up coffee through texts

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/ Updated: May 31, 2013 4:18 PM PDT

You will probably never buy Zipwhip's Textspresso coffee machine in any store -- a fact baldly posted on the company's Web site -- but that won't stop other appliance-makers from using the company's cloud-based texting platform to one day churn out cup after cup of custom-texted brews.

In fact, Zipwhip encourages such exploration by making the code it used open-source.

With that in mind, Zipwhip hand-delivered its Textspresso machine -- really a hacked De'Longhi espresso-maker -- to CNET headquarters to demonstrate the future of communicating with your caffeine. Here's how it works.

Very simply, thirsty users text their menu order -- say a single, double, or triple espresso -- from a smartphone or desktop texting interface like Google Voice to the Textspresso's designated phone number. The machine quips back when it starts your order, and then chirps again when it's finished frothing.

And yes, it'll let you know when to refill the water or tip in more beans. In a corporate environment, the machine would likely text a facilities coordinator when levels get low.

It's all thanks to Pi
To birth the Textspresso, Zipwhip started with an off-the-shelf espresso machine that costs about $500, then opened up the guts to insert a programmed Raspberry Pi computer . To this, Zipwhip's tinkerers added a customized circuit board. Together, the unit mimics the push buttons you'd press to order up your steaming solution.

Communication happens over a persistent Wi-Fi network, and this is the part that makes the machine Internet-connected. On its end, Zipwhip uses its own cloud-based platform to convert texts -- sent to a dedicated landline -- into commands that the Textspresso then receives through Wi-Fi.

The real-world test
As fun as it is to watch the Textspresso do its thing, does it really work, and is it even practical in daily application? In an office environment like CNET's, I can see how texting a coffeemaker, or vending machine, or whatever is a moderately convenient time-saver.

Instead of sitting around for a minute waiting for other people to use the machine, and a few minutes more for your drink to drip out, you can type out some characters and fetch your cup when it's done.

Yet, a texting appliance like the Textspresso doesn't make sense for every scenario, and even the success of this demo device in particular depends on some ground rules that include placing a cup under the spout after you take yours away -- otherwise, you've just texted yourself a giant puddle.

And what if there's a line for drinks, how will you know which cup is yours? These are just some questions that bubble up after the initial cool factor fizzles away.

As a concept device, Zipwhip dodges most of the responsibility of solving all of the hardware and marketing minutiae associated with selling and maintaining a networked bean-brewer. There were some setup stumbles that are easy to wave off for a one-off demo machine, but much harder to ignore if you've actually bought one of these for the office.

Zipwhip Textspresso
Zipwhip's Textspresso concept sends you an SMS when your coffee's ready. Josh Miller/CNET

If some other manufacturer were to take the Textspresso idea public, it would need to work out the finer points.

Texts versus apps
During the course of this hands-on, you might ask yourself: why text when you can just use an app? In some cases, NFC taps or app interfaces make more sense, but in an office situation with a coffeemaker scenario, texting could have the upper hand, mainly because you wouldn't have to create an app for all employees to install in order to get a cup.

Here's another benefit: tracking user behavior in a database. Since orders are tied to numbers, the machine learns to recognize your favorite drink (you can text "usual") and could presumably give inventory tips for restocking (everyone loves the macchiato, but don't bother getting more fake vanilla syrup).

It isn't just lattes
Zipwhip's eccentric ingenuity doesn't stop at espresso. Employees regularly scheme up novel uses for texting as a way to remotely command machines to do a range of things, like manage pet care and feed and water the plants.

The whole point, according to CEO John Lauer, is to get potential customers thinking up practical applications for Zipwhip's Internet-based texting platform. Employees' one-off gadgets like this one are just the icing on the cake. Or rather, the cream in the coffee.

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Zipwhip Textspresso

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