They've got game | December 12, 2008 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - December 12, 2008

They've got game

by Don Frances

The concept behind uWink is simple enough: Offer eating and computer gaming, both favorite local pastimes, under one roof.

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.


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Posted by Angela Hey
Mountain View Voice Blogger
on Dec 15, 2008 at 10:05 pm

Angela Hey is a registered user.

I liked ordering a refill for my iced tea from the table top screen. It was quick and efficient. Food ordering worked well, but I wish the screens could have been embedded in the table.

Over 30 years ago Nolan Bushnell created Pong - a simple tennis-like game where the screen was horizontal and embedded in the table. For ordering and for most games a horizontal screen would have been much better. If the screens could fold away or go flat that would be an improvement on the rather clumsy hardware currently on the table.

The WII and smartphones have raised users' expectations for games. I like the idea of playing games in a restaurant. It's a good idea to have a range of games. The first I played at UWink was a spot the difference in two pictures - fine for people who speak any language. It didn't demand high performance computing, allowed me to compete against other diners and was easy to learn. Doing a quiz well is much harder - it needs to be calibrated to the user - I found the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire style game too easy to begin with and then culturally biased for later questions. I like word games, but maybe UWink should get a license to a real game like Scrabble to make their games more exciting.

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2009 at 7:47 pm

A more appropriate place for this type of entertainment should be at the mall or near movie theatres. Not Castro Street.

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Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Neighbor, based on the sparse crowds at uWink, I think that the market agrees with you (as do I)-- kiddie oriented and fast food places rarely thrive in downtowns

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Posted by Melissa L.
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Jan 17, 2009 at 11:54 am

I entirely agree with Frances' appraisal, but would like to add that the food is also mediocre; I think it'd have more of a place on Castro St. if its menu were more diverse and the quality of its food were to improve.

That said, I don't find this a "kiddie-oriented" or "fast food" establishment -- if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that this place is geared toward people in their 20s. Cocktails and word puzzles don't scream "bring the kids after Little League practice" to me -- that's what commercials are for, amirite?

Anyway, I have to wonder how representative your samples are, Eric. When I've walked by, and when I've eaten there, it's been rather busy. I'm not touting the integrity of *my* samples over yours, nor do I argue that the place will succeed, but I am encouraging you and anyone who reads your comment to dismiss such casual quantitative data (particularly when it's used to lend credence to what is really a qualitative analysis).

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Posted by eric
a resident of another community
on Jan 17, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Melissa, I walk by there enough during business hours to say that my sample is representative of their daytime traffic-- they are not drawing a good lunch crowd, and I'm skeptical that they see much volume at 'happy hour'. Cant speak for evenings, but I doubt there are enough early 20's working in downtown to provide enough revenue during the week. They'd better be hopping on Friday and Saturday night!

I didnt mean 'kiddie' as in little league age. I meant early 20's ( I dont think too many people over 25 will see much appeal to a bar/restaraunt theat discourages REAL interaction!). And I do consider their fare to be fast food a la Chilis and its ilk.

This place would, I think, do fine in a mall, where they'd have lower overhead and more of their client base in place.