Masterton, New Zealand – a town where sheep outnumber people – is the unassuming home to a Coca-Cola Amatil office housing one of the most innovative hotbeds of technical talent in the global Coca-Cola system.

In these humble offices tucked away next to a bus station, sandwiched between mountains and hills, Andy Kerr and his team are shaping the future of vending machines.

And the future is smart with Artificial Intelligence (AI).

A Smarter Machine

Amatil Australia and Amatil NZ have nearly 26,000 vending machines in their combined territories.

Updating one of these machines can require up to 45 minutes of on-site reprogramming.

Kerr, Amatil’s general manager of vending systems services, pursued a vending revamp that would not only improve the programming process, but also redefine the user experience.

The idea began in 2015 when Kerr’s team was challenged to transform customer interactions with vending machines into experiences comparable to what people might have in a retail store.

'The spirit of The Coca-Cola Company is about surprising people through experience. Our goal with this vending process is to create experiences only Coca-Cola can create.'

Kerr’s team wanted a vending machine that could offer specials, track sales, preempt maintenance and refill needs, and accept mobile payments. They wanted a vending machine people would never need to touch to retrieve their drink purchase.

The solution, it turned out, was in the vending machines already in use. The units just needed to get smarter.

Kerr's team of eight built a retrofit kit, compatible with the most popular machines on the market, which would allow the company to control existing vending systems digitally through the cloud. Once the machines are cloud-connected, Amatil can digitally adjust their pricing from afar, and consumers can buy drinks via phone before reaching the machine.

Coud integration opens up a new realm of global interconnectivity. Because the machines operate on a unified digital system, customers can push a button on their phone in Atlanta and have a drink appear at a vending machine in Masterton, New Zealand.

“What we’ve done is common sense," Kerr says, humbly. "It just took us a while to figure it out.”

Greg Chambers, Coca-Cola’s global group director of digital innovation, is less hesitant to boast about the game-changing nature of this technology and the brains behind it.

“These guys put me in awe,” he says of Kerr’s team. “They are still hand making circuit boards, when probably not five people in the United States can do that. I’ve never seen anything like Andy Kerr.”

Consumers can interact message an artificial intelligence bot that will tailor its tone and content specifically to each conversation.

An AI Experience

Inspired by Kerr’s innovation, Chambers’ team at Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, set out to create a digital user experience to complement these newly-digital vending machines.

Chambers imagined sitting on a hot train and having a phone notification appear announcing a Coca-Cola happy hour special – buy a Coca-Cola and get a discounted DASANI, for example. More than a notification, he envisioned this message as an invitation to join a conversation with the brand.

Consumers could jump into personalized chats with Coca-Cola, as if they were communicating with a familiar bodega operator. As soon as they reached their final destination, their mobile-made purchases would appear in their chosen vending machine.

Chambers’ vision is soon to be a reality when it rolls out in Amatil’s New Zealand market, before making its way to the U.S.

The first step in enabling this experience was creating a platform to host these digital conversations. Recognizing consumers’ desire for an experience already built into their devices as opposed to one requiring a new app, Chambers’ team partnered with Facebook Messenger and Pandorabots, an AI Web service that designs Internet robots (bots) capable of personalized conversations.

Users can opt into conversations with the vending bot via Facebook Messenger. Using data gathered through the consumer's Facebook activity, current location and tone of conversation, the AI bot will adopt a local dialect and attitude tailored to each user. Every interaction with these responsive AI bots promises a unique experience, as the bots develop a cognitive understanding of what’s being said in each conversation and respond accordingly.

Just like the contour Coca-Cola bottle became a visual icon of the company, Chambers believes these digital vending engagements can become a quintessential part of the Coca-Cola experience.

“The spirit of The Coca-Cola Company is about surprising people through experience,” says Chambers. “Our goal with this vending process is to create experiences only Coca-Cola can create.”