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The iSommelier Will Take Your Order


Touch-screen tabletops with interactive menus are coming to wine bars and restaurants near you

David Rockwell, the affable designer of the hip W Hotels, strolls around the floor of the new, wine-themed Adour Alain Ducasse restaurant in New York's tony St. Regis Hotel. He stops, zeroing in on Adour's centerpiece: a wine bar with a touch-sensitive surface, similar to a giant iPhone screen.

Using their fingers, guests place orders and browse information on available vintages, and a sommelier delivers them. "We are trying to make wine approachable, but not dumb it down," says Rockwell.

Adour's wine director, Thomas Combescot, runs his hands over the bar's smooth, stretched-goatskin surface. He touches the bar top and a digitized menu appears: By the Glass, Red Wine, Magnums, Bar Food, and more. I tap Red Wine. A list of countries materializes. I choose Spain. Then a menu of regions appears, and beneath that, a selection of wines. I drill down more, and a graphic displays details about the producer and grapes, along with tasting notes, arranged in a rosette pattern.

The technology is an example of the new trend of so-called ubiquitous computing, or the shift of computing from single PCs to more unusual, social places. Such technology allows several people to manipulate computers together without a mouse or keyboard. Restaurants, from the high-end Adour to franchised chains such as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's uWink cafés (the latest to open in Silicon Valley in early 2008), are beginning to embrace the technology.

Sure, there have been touch-screen computers before, such as ATMs. But these new projector-based systems offer more detailed graphics and group, rather than solitary, interactions. Some critics dismiss touch tables as expensive gimmicks. Adour's system, for example, cost $250,000. But big companies like Microsoft (MSFT) hope to take them mainstream. This spring, Microsoft plans to introduce a similar motion-sensing technology for touch tables, called Surface, in Harrah's (HET) casinos and Sheraton (HOT) hotels so customers can order their own food and drinks from the tabletop menus. Each unit will cost about $5,000 to $10,000.

To create Adour's interactive bar, Rockwell hired Potion Design, a small New York firm started by two graduates of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. Chef Alain Ducasse hopes the touch-sensitive bar will encourage customers to explore new wines—not to mention the new wave of social computing.

Ante is Computer Editor for BusinessWeek .

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