Every hungry office worker has experienced the pain of seeing a Snickers bar locked away in a vending machine only to realize you don’t have the right amount of cash. Or any cash. Like parking meters, laundromat washing machines and those vibrating beds at cheap hotels, vending machines are stuck in the coin-operated (or dollar) world.
But that’s slowly changing thanks to cheaper connectivity and more people carrying around smartphones. Okay, the beds may never upgrade, but parking meters often accept credit cards now thanks to a cellular modem installed in each machine; connected washers aren’t too far off. Vending machines had been a bit of a challenge, because putting a cellular modem in one necessitated a monthly fee in what can be a low-margin and uncertain business. But Paresh Patel, the CEO of PayRange who bought and operated his first vending machine at the age of 17, realized that Bluetooth could be the answer.
Patel has developed an app and a $49 Bluetooth dongle that inserts into the MBD port on a vending machine. The MBD port is akin to the OBD port on a car that can harness engine data, only it grabs vending machine data. The dongle then lets anyone who wants to pay for a snack use the PayRange app after they add a little money to their account. Unlike other mobile payment methods such as NFC, which tries to turn a phone into a secured device, PayRange assumes the phone is compromised.
The payment information is sent via the back end — from PayRange’s servers — to the vending machine operator. This cloud-based system does away with the need for expensive secured SIMs and cellular connections, while keeping the Snickers bar accessible to hungry people with smartphones. But there’s more to this dongle than doing away with cash payments.
Because the dongle plugs into the MBD port, information about what slots are empty are reported back, allowing a vending machine operator to know what is selling and when it needs to be refilled.
So far, PayRange has collected orders for 33,000 of the machines since the April launch when Patel had originally anticipated selling 1,000 in the first year. It seems he’s on to something. Perhaps Bluetooth can beat cellular even when it comes to secure applications.