Have a Coke, and Big Brother is sure to smile

Now for the latest evidence that the world is going to hell in a handbasket: The Coca Cola Co., seeking new ways to make thirst pay, is working on a weather-sensing vending machine that will raise prices when it's hot. Isn't that immoral? I mean, if a man crawls in from the desert dying of thirst, would you demand a C-note for a glass of water?
No, but a Coke . . . that's different. It's just an indulgence. So what's wrong with charging what the market will bear - more when it's hot, less when it's cold?
In fact, computer chips may soon enable vending machines to constantly adjust prices according to any number of factors that cause momentary fluctuations in supply and demand, not just weather.
So, some busy fall evening in the not-too-distant future, you sidle up to a well-lit Coke machine in South Philly (Philadelphia). The box has no buttons, does not display any prices. A spotlight shines on your face as sensors zoom in on your vital signs. A head-high video screen flickers on.
The machine sees you're in jeans, not a suit, so it scans its library of personalities, skipping the erudite Englishman and the slinky French model. It displays the good-natured face of Sylvester Stallone.
"Yo!" The Coke machine calls. "What can I do ya for?" Sly smiles, thinking of his royalty, perhaps.
"A Coke Classic please."
"No problem. Four bucks."
"Whoa! They're 50 cents at the supermarket."
The machine pauses, while its accent analyzer determines you aren't from the neighborhood.
"You see a supermarket around here?" it says. "Four dollars."
You decide to bluff. "Look, the machine around the corner gave me a Pepsi for half that."
"A couple of hours ago."
"Yeah, it's rush hour now. You won't get a two-dollar soda anywhere." The head on the screen shakes from side to side sympathetically. Then the red and white machine goes silent, letting you sweat. This is going to be tougher than you'd thought.
You pull out your Palm pilot X, link to the Internet, and go to sodamachines.com.
"There are 14 soda machines within four blocks," you report, holding up the Palm Pilot for the machine to see.
"You're telling me that I can't beat four dollars?"
The Coke machine tallies the 90 seconds it has expended on this negotiation. Its motion sensor detects two customers moving around impatiently behind you. Its atomic clock reports that rush hour is winding down.
"Okay, three dollars," it offers, peeved.
"No way." You stuff your wallet into your pants and step back.
The Coke machines focuses an infrared scanner on your lips, calibrating your thirst. It counts its inventory and finds a surplus of Diet Coke. Its hard drive whirs for a second.
"I'll give you a Diet Coke for $2.50," it offers resentfully.
"Terrible aftertaste," you say.
"Look pal, if you're not buyin' move along."
Traffic is getting lighter. The two people behind you give up and leave.
"All right," the box grumbles.
You deposit two dollars, get your can, and turn to go.
The machine pauses a nanosecond while electrons zip around its circuits. It's a weekday. Rush hour. Statistics suggest you work nearby. You'll be back. The machine activates its customer relations software. "Have a nice evening, bud," it calls as you turn away, the face smiling widely.
"Hey!" it calls. "I'm a soft touch today. Just got my circuits cleaned. Don't expect a deal like this next time!"
As you disappear around the corner, the machine counts its remaining cans, assesses the odds of making a sale this late in the day, and looks at how it's doing on its sales goal - a little behind. It cranks up the volume on its Rocky voice and calls out to the nearly empty street.
"Coke Classic! Get you Coke Classic here!"
"Only a dollar!"

Author: Jeff Brown / This is edited from an original article that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on October 31, 1999.