Given all the foodies and gamers in Silicon Valley, it might seem, at a glance, like a slam-dunk idea for Mountain View. But in fact the challenge is greater than if uWink were elsewhere: Foodies demand better food, and gamers demand better games. Can uWink deliver on these two fronts?
To be fair, the computer consoles bolted to every table at uWink also are for ordering and paying for your meal, and in this they are successful. In fact the uWink technology is advertised, on the company's Web site, as something every busy restaurant should get in on.
"Improve speed of service and order accuracy," the site promises. "Raise labor efficiency. Reduce cash handling by encouraging credit card transactions." (The technology already is in use at some Chili's restaurants.)
Earlier this week I had lunch at uWink with Voice tech columnist Angela Hey to find out how the consoles worked, and whether they offered a satisfying "interactive entertainment" experience. After we sat down and I "logged on" by sliding a card, we began poking at the touch-screens — we each had our own — and found the menu easy enough to navigate. Soon we'd pecked out orders for a cheeseburger and a quesadilla, including customized choices (medium-rare for me, with pepperjack cheese) and drinks.
A green button sent our order to the kitchen, and the food was brought to our table in what felt like 30 seconds.
The rest of the time was for eating and whatever else you do while eating — and what are you going to do, talk? No, you're going to play the games.
Speaking as a non-gamer, I found uWink's games to be a bit tepid. Most of the ones I tried reminded me of the lottery-type video games you see in bars. There were plenty of trivia games — "Which politician played NCAA basketball for the University of Kansas?" — and brain-teasers, and word puzzles. Some of these are meant to be played with your table mate, and some require more than two players. It wasn't always clear, until a few minutes in, what each game required, or whether it would be any fun.
"The computer is slow," Angela noted. Indeed, hitting the screen does not always get an instant response, prompting users to poke at the same spot several times.
Occasionally, the management initiates a game for everyone to play, causing all the screens to start flashing. You can opt in by pressing a button on your screen. During our lunch, this always led to more trivia games, only now several people were competing from various tables.
I wondered what a hardcore gamer would think of all this. Where were the racing games? The shoot-'em-ups? The attacking aliens? My suspicion is that a "real" gamer would poke madly at the screen for a while, give up, and possibly order an extravagant milkshake with chocolate syrup. That, at least, is easy to do at uWink.