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The Big Story Behind Coke’s Small World Machines

By:  Gabe Aldridge Jun 7, 2013
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Small World Machines

The Coca-Cola Small World Machines have received a lot of attention since their March debut in India and Pakistan. And, while reporters and bloggers have written a lot of great things about the experience, no one has captured the lives of these “magic machines” that helped unite strangers from nations separated by so much more than just borders. 

So, without further ado, here’s their story.

The Set Up

Coke's ad agency, Leo Burnett, came to The SuperGroup with a unique challenge: to develop a pair of interactive Coke machines to be deployed across the globe with the express purpose of uniting people divided by hundreds of miles and decades of warfare. We have a longstanding relationship with Coke's innovation group, and are no strangers to big technical challenges. This assignment, however, was different. These machines not only needed to be highly interactive, but also truly interpersonal.

Even before beginning our first prototypes, we knew the technology needed to withdraw into the background once the experience started. We had to produce such a realistic interaction that people would focus on the person “standing” right in front of them and not on the huge technical lift that went into making the experience possible. So, we went to work – seven days a week, with many 16-hour days, for three straight months.

There were challenges. Man, there were challenges.

Round 1

Small World Machines sketch

An early sketch of the Small World Machines.

First off, there was no bundled technology available that would allow us to do what we wanted in a simple mash-up fashion. Since what we were trying to accomplish had never been done before, there were no tutorials to follow; we had to write our own. No single piece of equipment could do the job, but what did exist were single components that, if linked together properly, might produce the magic.

So, we put on our MacGyver hats, and went to work.

The most obvious methods and equipment could get us part of the way there, but wouldn’t produce the all-important eye-to-eye contact necessary to create an emotional connection between people meeting, albeit virtually, for the first time. Among many other avenues, we experimented with the illusionary technique known as Pepper’s Ghost, which relies on two-way mirrors. We achieved an incredibly lifelike image with this approach, but an unacceptable separation remained between the people in front of the screens when they touched hands.

We also experimented with surrounding a television screen with multiple cameras to capture different angles of the subject. These angles would then be processed into a single composite image. Even though a more eye-to-eye perspective became possible, the user's hands would get cut off when they reached for the screen.

We created design after design, prototype after prototype. There were failures, and a lot of frustration, but as we dug further into our woven technology and relied on our team's previous experiences in interactive development and film production, we quickly realized that the camera had to be placed behind the screen – and at eye level – to achieve a realistic viewing angle and capture the all-important hand-on-hand connection when presenting the video feed to the other machine.

The Georgian Quickstep

This realization led to the greatest single challenge that we would face throughout the entire development journey. Not only did we need to bring the camera behind the viewing screens, but we also had to figure out a way for the camera to see through a projected onscreen image in order to cleanly capture the people standing in front of each machine.

Thus, a technique that we call The Georgian Quickstep was born.

This new method gave our cameras the ability to practically see through a wall. We had just come off of a project at the 30th Anniversary of Disney’s Epcot Center, where we had to dig deeply into 3D technology. We worked extensively with both active and passive 3D glasses and projection for several months, and our experiences there led us to the breakthrough we were looking for.

Active-shutter 3D glasses allow your eyes to effectively see two images at once, which is the very thing that gives the movies you are viewing a 3D quality. This feat is achieved by the lenses of the 3D glasses alternating slightly different images between one eye and the other at a rate of 60 frames per second – so fast that the naked eye does not notice the shift.

We hijacked this feature and set up our camera and projector to use active shutter 3D in a different way. First, we created software that displayed the full image of the person in front of the machine in only one of the lens of the 3D glasses, while the other lens displayed a blank frame. We then put the 3D lens with the blank frame over the camera. The projector would display both the full and blank images the whole time, but the camera could only see the blank frame, and therefore was able to film the people in front of each machine without picking up the projected image as well. This way, the camera never saw the projector, and vice versa.

So, voilà! The camera was able to see through a wall.

Other Challenges

Space inside the Small World Machines themselves was limited. We needed to find a 3D projector that had a short enough throw to project a full-body image in the 48 inches of space inside each machine. The final stage was to insert an infrared touch frame in front of the specialized rear projection screen we found in Germany. This last piece allows users to trace shapes together and engage in small, but important, hand-to-hand interactions.

With this, all of the individual technologies began to work together in concert, and theCoke Small World Machines were born!

Getting There

India

Setting the stage in New Delhi.

We decided to transport the machines on passenger airlines instead of cargo planes. Though this provided the fastest way to deliver the machines, it presented some major hurdles. I can’t begin to explain the mountain of regulations we had to work through just to get approval to ship. We had to list the specifics of every single piece of technology. And as you can see from the paragraphs above, the technology isn’t easy to communicate or understand, especially with a language barrier.

Then, we had to develop customized packaging for the machines to fit through the luggage door of a passenger liner. With all the sensitive technology, an amazing amount of time and effort went into securing everything for the flights.

In early-January 2013, the plan was for a handful of team members to fly to both countries to claim the machines from customs and begin the process of testing the equipment. The India trip pretty much went off without a hitch, but Pakistan was a different story, where complications rendered us unable to complete our activation.

It took over two months for the new paperwork to clear before we could make a second effort. Not knowing what we’d find when we’d arrive, we had six back-up plans in the event we ran into trouble.

The Big Day Arrives

I have to admit, even though we had multiple backup plans, had rehearsed everything time and time again, and tested and retested all of the equipment, the operation had an Argo-like feel to it, where everything could fall apart at any minute. And, par for the course, it almost did.

One cool element of the Small World Machines was that they were actually working refrigerated Coke dispensers. The machines were designed to drop a can of Coke after a person interacted with and “touched” a person in the other country. Well, in between our two trips, we learned that India had changed its Coke can size! So, the available cans didn’t fit our machine. The local production team worked with as many local distributors as possible to round up the remaining cans they had in stock that would fit. While that problem was solved, there were more on the horizon as we inched toward the big day.

Small World Machines behind the scenes

Bird's eye view: Looking down on the filming in Lahore.

We had to work off each country’s power supply and electrical grids. In Pakistan, it was often three hours on, three hours off. We had battery backups, but we were told that rolling blackouts could last most of an entire day. Thankfully, that never happened. Oh, wait…

We needed strong Internet connectivity for the machines to interact with the other. Just as we were about to drop the curtain, our broadband speeds in Pakistan dwindled to next to nothing. As we scrambled for a solution, seemingly out of nowhere, a knight in shining armor, a local tech whiz, came to our rescue, and somehow tapped into a private feed. We didn’t bother to ask how.

The End

It’s important to note that Indians and Pakistanis are not overly familiar with Coke machines to begin with. So, imagine their surprise and intrigue when they saw these stylish red beauties in the middle of their favorite mall. It didn’t take them long to get engaged.

I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring it was to see children from India physically reaching out to children from Pakistan, and both of them tracing a peace sign together with hand-to-hand connection. Not one time did anyone ask about the advanced technology.

You might think that would be a downer for us since we put so much effort into the development of these machines, but it wasn’t in the least. We wanted them to ignore the wizardry and magic, and to just share the wonderful experience. It was all about providing a positive difference, building friendships and community. One Indian man came up to us smiling, saying he didn’t even know what Pakistanis dressed like. “Not that different than us,” he said.  Watch footage of consumers in Pakistan dancing back to their newfound friends in India.

And, in truth, the people of these two countries aren’t that different. Coke helped show them that.

In all, over 10,000 Cokes were distributed. But, that’s not the important part. Hundreds gathered, new friends were made, families came together, hearts were opened, hands touched, communication was established, and boundaries were diminished.

There are projects that make you feel good. Then, there are life-altering projects that change you for the better. The Coke Small World Machines was that type of project.

Gabe Aldridge is co-founder of The SuperGroup, an Atlanta, Ga.-based digital marketing and innovation agency. Reach him at gabe.aldridge@thesupergroup.com.