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Title:
VENDING MACHINE SYSTEM FOR FACILITATING CONSUMER INTERACTIONS
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2017/209627
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
A vending machine for selling or dispensing products to a user, including a casing (10) for storing and displaying the products (30, 31). The casing (10) has side walls (21), a transparent portion (14) which makes the products (30, 31) visible from outside the casing (10), and an aperture (15) for removing one or more products (30, 31) by hand. An aperture access enabling device (19) selectively enables or prevents access through the aperture (15) into the casing (10), and a weight recognition module (61) with one or more weight sensors (24) recognizes products (30,31) that are added to or removed from the vending machine. The one or more weight sensors (24) are positioned at the bottom of the casing (10), and a container (32) is positioned on top of the weight sensors (24). The container (32) has a base (52) and outer walls (50) that are substantially parallel with the side walls (21) of the casing (10) without interfering with the side walls (21).

Inventors:
HINDSGAUL, Kim (Bygdøynesveien 11, 0287 OSLO, 0287, NO)
Application Number:
NO2017/050142
Publication Date:
December 07, 2017
Filing Date:
June 01, 2017
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
BUBBLY GROUP AS (Gaustadalléen 21, 0349 OSLO, 0349, NO)
International Classes:
G07F9/10; G07F11/44
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
ZACCO NORWAY AS (2003 Vika, Haakon VII's gate 2, 0125 OSLO, 0125, NO)
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Claims:
What is claimed is:

1. Vending machine for selling or dispensing products to a user, including:

a casing (10) for storing and displaying the one or more products (30, 31), the casing (10) having side walls (21), a transparent portion (14) making the one or more products (30, 31) visible from outside the casing (10), and an aperture (15) for removing one or more products (30, 31) by hand, wherein the aperture (15) gives direct access to the one or more products (30, 31);

an aperture access enabling device (19) for selectively enabling or preventing access through the aperture (15) into the casing (10); and

a weight recognition module (61) with one or more weight sensors (24) for recognizing products (30, 31) that are added to or removed from the vending machine; c h a r a c t e r i z e d b y that

the one or more weight sensors (24) are positioned at the bottom of the casing (10); and

a container (32) that is adapted to fit inside the casing (10) is positioned on top of the weight sensors (24), the container (32) having a base (52) and outer walls (50), the outer walls (50) being substantially parallel with the side walls (21) of the casing (10) without interfering with the side walls (21).

2. Vending machine according to claim 1, wherein the aperture access enabling device (19) is a piston (20), which passes through a hole in the base (52) of the container (32) and closes the aperture (15) by telescopically extending out from a cylindrical guidance towards or into the aperture (15) and which opens the aperture (15) by telescopically retracting from its extended state; and

the container (32) further includes an inner wall (51) which encircles and is substantially parallel with the aperture access enabling device (19) without interfering with the aperture enabling device (19).

3. Vending machine according to claim 2, wherein the inner wall (51) of the container (32) has an upper flange (53) preventing the one or more products (30, 31) from coming into contact with the aperture access enabling device (19).

4. Vending machine according to one of the previous claims, wherein the vending machine is configured to recognize at least a removed product or a returned product, and to finalize a transaction based on the recognized product.

5. Vending machine according to claim 4, further comprising a network

communication device (39), and wherein the vending machine is configured to finalize a transaction by communicating with a payment service over the network

communication device (39).

6. Method for operating a vending machine for selling or dispensing products to a user, the vending machine comprising a casing (10) for storing and displaying one or more products (30, 31), the casing (10) having side walls (21), a transparent portion (14) making the one or more products (30, 31) visible from outside the casing (10), and an aperture (15) for removing one or more products (30, 31) by hand, wherein the aperture (15) gives direct access to the one or more products (30, 31);

an aperture access enabling device (19) for selectively enabling or preventing access through the aperture (15) into the casing (10); and

a weight recognition module (61) with one or more weight sensors (24) for recognizing the one or more products (30, 31) that are added to or removed from the vending machine;

c h a r a c t e r i z e d i n

positioning the one or more weight sensors (24) at the bottom of the casing (10); positioning a container (32) that is adapted to fit inside the casing (10), on top of the weight sensors (24), the container (32) having a base (52) and outer walls (50), the outer walls (50) being substantially parallel with the side walls (21) of the casing (10) without interfering with the side walls (21);

providing products freely inside the container (32) up to an upper limit represented by the top of the outer walls (50);

operating the aperture access enabling device (19) for selectively enabling or preventing access through the aperture (15) into the container (32);

recognizing the one or more products (30, 31) in the container (32) when removed from the container (32) or when returned to the container (32) by means of said weight recognition module (61).

7. Method according to claim 6, wherein the aperture access enabling device (19) is a piston (20), which passes through a hole in the base (52) of the container (32) and closes the aperture (15) by telescopically extending out from a cylindrical guidance towards or into the aperture (15) and which opens the aperture (15) by telescopically retracting from its extended state; the container (32) further includes an inner wall (51) which encircles and is substantially parallel with the aperture access enabling device (19) without interfering with the aperture access enabling device (19); and

said upper limit is the lower of the top of the outer walls (50) and the top of the inner wall (51).

8. Method according to claim 7, wherein the inner wall (51) of the container (32) has an upper flange (53) preventing the one or more products (30, 31) from coming into contact with the aperture access enabling device (19); and

said upper limit is the lower of the top of the outer walls (50) and the upper flange (53) of the inner wall (51).

9. Method according to any one of the claims 6 to 8, further comprising:

recognizing at least a removed product or a returned product; and finalizing a transaction based on the recognized product.

10. Method according to claim 9, wherein the vending machine further comprises a network communication device (39), and the finalizing of a transaction based on the recognized products is performed by communicating with a payment service over the network communication device (39).

Description:
Vending machine system for facilitating consumer interactions

This invention relates to vending machines, and in particular to vending machines, systems and methods for facilitating consumer interactions, and more particularly to a vending machine having a mechanism adapted to identify and count a quantity of products.

Background of the invention

Current vending machines are usually bulky. This kind of vending machines are usually permanently installed at places such as train stations, subway stations etc. The different and separated compartments of this kind of vending machines are filled with different products. The vending machine is programmed accordingly, such that an article is delivered from a certain compartment depending on a choice made by a user/customer. Due to their size, the places of installation are limited for such vending machines. Also, the range of products is limited to the ones the vending machine can deal with from a mechanical point of view.

Thus, there is a need for a vending machine providing more flexibility with respect to places of installation and range of products.

Summary of the invention

The present invention provides an automatic vending machine which avoids, or at least mitigates, the shortcomings mentioned above.

According to one aspect of the invention improved weighing accuracy is provided in order to enable identification of a large variety of products.

According to another aspect of the present invention, an automatically updated inventory list of the products currently stored in the vending machine can be provided.

Yet another aspect of the present invention enables acceptance of products from authorized users, wherein the vending machine functions as a reverse vending machine. Various embodiments of the present invention are directed to a vending machine configured for storing one or more products and provide access the stored products to authorized users.

One aspect of the invention prevents products in the vending machine from interfering with surrounding components in a manner that may influence registration of products that are removd from or returned to the vending machine.

As will be appreciated from the detailed description below, the various embodiments of the vending machine described herein enable authorized users to conveniently remove one or more products from a vending machine, correctly identify products removed from the vending machine, improve the reliability of the vending machine as compared to conventional vending machines, conserve space within the vending machine to provide a large interior space with a reduced footprint and a reduced weight, and reduce the overall manufacturing cost of the vending machine.

Brief description of the drawings

Fig. 1 is a three-dimensional view of the vending machine according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Fig. 2 shows the vending machine of Fig. 1 in a three-dimensional view from a different perspective;

Fig. 3 shows a schematic cross-sectional view along a plane which is parallel to a side wall of a casing of the vending machine of Fig. 1;

Fig. 4 shows a three-dimensional view from above into a casing of the vending machine of Fig. 1;

Figs. 5a, 5b show a display holder holding a tablet computer as user interface of the vending machine;

Fig. 6 shows schematically the communication ability of the vending machine with a remote server;

Fig. 7 schematically shows a block diagram of a control scheme of the vending machine according to an embodiment of the present invention;

Fig. 8 shows yet another embodiment of the vending machine according to the present invention, and

Fig. 9 illustrates an exemplary method that can be performed by the vending machine operating in accordance with the principles of the invention. Detailed description of exemplary embodiments

The following discloses example methods, apparatus, systems, and articles of manufacture including, among other components, firmware and/or software executed on hardware. It should, however, be noted that the embodiments described are intended to be illustrative and should not be considered as limiting. For example, it is contemplated that any or all of these hardware, firmware, and/or software components could be embodied exclusively in hardware, exclusively in firmware, exclusively in software, or in any combination of hardware, firmware, and/or software, except, of course, that certain components by necessity must have a physical implementation in order to interact with other physical objects. Accordingly, while the following describes example methods, apparatus, systems, and articles of manufacture, the examples provided are not the only ways to implement such methods, apparatus, systems, and articles of manufacture. In particular, certain features and aspects that are described in combination herein do not all have to be present in all embodiments of the invention except to the extent they interact to provide specific functionality. For the sake of brevity and efficiency of disclosure of the invention, however, no attempt is made to describe every permutation and combination of subsets of features in distinct exemplary embodiments. Those with skill in the art will understand how various features may be combined dependent on the set of features and capabilities a particular embodiment should provide.

The present invention is directed to a vending machine for selling or dispensing products such as chocolate bars, beverage cans, beauty articles, snacks, product samples etc. from a closeable casing. The users who would like to obtain one or more of these products are identified and the vending machine opens. The user can then pick the desired product himself by hand. The vending machine recognizes automatically which product was removed and bills it automatically to the account of the user. Due to the compact size of the vending machine, it can be placed at many places such as entrances of shops, in offices and waiting rooms.

It should be noted that in more general terms the machine is configured to perform a transaction that includes the delivery of an item to a user. The transaction does not have to be a sale, but for the sake of efficiency of explanation, the following exemplary embodiments will primarily be described as involving sale of items. Except to the extent that payment solutions are explicitly described, each sale is intended to be an example of a transaction, and do not necessarily have to involve transfer of funds.

Fig. 1 is a three-dimensional view of a vending machine according to an embodiment of the present invention. The main body of the vending machine is formed by a casing 10 which is box-shaped with rounded corners. The casings outer dimensions may in particular be 50cm x 50cm with a height of 25cm. This size facilitates placement even in confined spaces, it is user friendly and provides sufficient capacity for many use cases. However, other dimensions are possible and consistent with the principles of the invention, but in order to provide the vending machine with a compact size which fits at a large number of places, the size should be no larger than 100cm x 50cm with a height of 50cm. The casing 10 is carried by a stand 11 attached to the casing 10. The casing 10 may be formed of aluminum, white polycarbonate or acrylate polymer. The stand 11 in the embodiment illustrated in Fig. 1 comprises a pole 12 and a round ground plate 13, but other configurations may be contemplated. The upper side of the casing 10 is covered with a removable lid 14 which form-fits into an upper opening of the casing 10. The lid 14 is transparent and may be formed of polycarbonate or acrylic glass. The lid 14 is curved outwardly such that its height is in particular between 40 and 50mm, e.g. 44mm. An aperture 15 is formed centrally in the lid 14 and should be dimensioned large enough for a user to reach inside the casing 10 by hand, in particular the diameter of the aperture 15 may be 16cm, but could also be in the range of 15cm to 30cm. The size of the casing and the container may depend on whether the vending machine is provided with a cooling function, or the size of the products (e.g. for newspapers or books, the aperture may be larger). The aperture is shown as a circular opening, but other shapes may be contemplated.

A lock 16 may be provided for locking and unlocking the lid 14 to/from the casing 10. The illustrated lock 16 is of rather schematic nature and illustrated as a mechanical lock, but the invention may also be implemented with an electro-mechanical lock which is operable by means of a wireless key, by a processor, or a specific code entered via a user interface. The processor and the user interface will be described in further detail below. On a back side of the casing 10, a display holder 17 may be attached, and the display holder 17 may hold a user interface 18, for example in the form of a tablet computer. If the display holder 17 is needed depends on the kind of user interface 18 used in a particular embodiment. Instead of or in addition to the tablet computer shown in the drawing, the user interface 18 could comprise a user communication device 63 for communicating with a cell phone or a tablet computer belonging to the user, for connecting to some other mobile device, or it may be a card reader or NFC reader for reading a smart or credit card of the user. If the user interface 18 is a user

communication device 63 without a display at the vending machine, the display holder 17 may not be necessary. The user communication device 63 may by a radio

transmitter/receiver. Instead information may be displayed on the mobile device of the user.

In the embodiment illustrated in Fig. 1, the inside of the casing 10 includes an aperture access enabling device 19 or closing device in form of a piston 20 which closes the aperture 15 when telescopically extended out of the upper end of the pole 12 and which opens the aperture 15 when telescopically retracted. Thus, the upper portion of the pole 12 may form a cylinder which is guiding the piston 20, namely the cylindrical outer side of the piston 20 is guided by the cylindrical inner side of the pole 12. Alternatively, there may be provided a separate cylinder for guiding the piston 20, which cylinder is attached to the casing 10 or the pole 12. The upper end of the piston 20 reaches into or approximates the aperture 15 and is dimensioned smaller than the aperture 15, e.g. has a smaller diameter, but it should also be dimensioned large enough to avoid that products stored in the container can be removed in a closed state. If the vending machine is provided with a cooling function, then it might be desirable to avoid a gap in between the aperture 15 and the piston 20 or to keep it small. A container 32 is fitted inside the casing 10, inside of which vending products can be deposited. The dimensions of container 32 are dependent of the casing's dimensions. The containers outer dimensions may in particular be 45 cm in diameter with a height of 20 cm.

Fig. 2 shows the vending machine according to an embodiment of the present invention in a three-dimensional view from a different perspective.

Fig. 3 shows a schematic cross-sectional view along a plane which is parallel to a side wall of the casing 10 and between this side wall and the piston 20. The lid 14 is not shown in Fig. 3. The casing 10 comprises four side walls 21 which are unitarily and monolithically formed and provided with rounded corners in a top view. A bottom cover 22 is provided. The bottom cover 22 may have the same shape as the lid 14, and it may be made from the same material as the lid 14. In some embodiments the central aperture may have a different size which is adapted to the pole 12 to pass through the bottom cover. The bottom cover 22 may be removable in order to provide easy access to the inside for maintenance and repair purposes and lockable to the casing 10 in a similar manner as the lid 14. Alternatively, the bottom cover 22 may be attached to the lower inner edge of the casing 10 by adhesive. Also, the bottom cover 22 can be attached to the pole 12 or a base plate 23. The base plate 23 is either formed unitarily and monolithically with the side walls 21 or attached thereto with known means (e.g. adhesive, screws, snap-fit connections). The base plate 23 can be attached to a flange 25 of the pole 12 (e.g.

adhesive, screws, snap-fit connections). The base plate 23 is carrying weight sensors 24 which are attached thereto. The number of the weight sensors 24 may be four wherein each of the sensors is positioned in a corner area of the base plate 23. Also other numbers of weight sensors are possible such as three, or more than four. On the underside of the base plate 23 there is provided a controller 26 managing the

communication and operation of the vending machine. In order to be able to do so, the controller 26 may be supplied with electrical power from an external source by means of a conventional power cable. Alternatively, an internal power source, for example rechargeable batteries, may be provided. The controller 26 may be connected to an actuator 27, a camera 28, the weight sensors 24 and the user interface 18. The controller 26 may basically be a personal computer including a processor and internal memory which stores necessary software and/or firmware components as well as data.

Alternatively, the controller may be an application specific integrated circuit (ASIC), a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) or some other device configured or adapted specifically for the purposes of the present invention, but a generic computer device may provide more flexibility with respect to hardware (e.g. CPU power, memory and other components) and software changes (e.g. Linux, Windows) and high compatibility regarding the connected devices such as the camera 28. The controller 26 may provide the mentioned components (actuator, camera, weight sensors) with power by means of a cable and exchange data by means of a cable. The controller 26 may also communicate wirelessly with the components for exchanging data.

The actuator 27 is an actuator which can extend and retract telescopically, wherein one end of the actuator 27 is mounted to the pole 12 and the other end is mounted to the piston 20. In other words, a piston of the actuator 27 can telescopically extended from a cylinder of the actuator 27 and retracted into the cylinder of the actuator 27, which in turn telescopically moves the piston 20. The actuator 27 may be a low voltage actuator operable with for example 12 or 24V, which can be provided via, or under control of, the controller 26. One example of such an actuator 27 is the actuator LA22 from

LINAK®. Regarding placement, the actuator 27 can be positioned entirely or partly inside the pole 12, which is holding the casing 10. For operating the actuator, the controller 26 includes an actuator driving unit 29 which regulates e.g. the current which the actuator 27 is provided with. The driving unit 29 is operating the actuator 27 such that it shows characteristics like a soft start and a soft stop. One example for such an actuator driving unit 29 may be the TR-EM-208 from LINAK®.

If vending products were inserted directly into the casing 10, resting only on a plate arranged on top of the weight sensors, the vending products might cause friction against the wall 21 or the pole 12, interfering with results of the weight sensors 24, particularly if the products were stuffed tightly together. This problem is solved by inserting a container 32, confining the vending products within the container 32. The size and shape of the container 32 is adapted to be inserted into the casing 10. The container 32 comprises outer walls 50, a base 52 or bottom, and an inner wall 51, defining a compartment in which vending products are deposited. The outer walls 50 are arranged such that the outer walls 50 are without any substantial physical contact with the walls 21 of the casing 10. The inner wall 51 is arranged such that the inner wall 51 is without any substantial physical contact with the pole 12 or any extension of the pole that is part of the aperture access enabling device 19. The container 32 is furthermore arranged such that it can move freely up and down along the longitudinal direction of the pole 12 and the side walls 21 of the casing 10.

The outer walls 50 and the inner wall 51 thus do not interfere with the side walls 21 or the aperture access enabling device 19 during operation, and similarly prevents products from interfering with the side walls 21 and the aperture access enabling device 19. The term interfering is intended to cover any substantial contact or friction that may prevent vertical movement of the container 32 or reduce the force acting on the base 52 of the container 32 as a result of the weight of the products provided inside the container 32, in a manner that may result in inaccurate weight registered by the weight sensors 24. Contact or friction which is insignificant or is predictable and can be compensated for e.g. through calibration, is not considered to interfere with the side walls 21 or the aperture access enabling device 19.

In addition, the inner wall 51 may comprise an upper flange 53 confining the vending products within the container 32, and preventing the vending products from accidentally causing friction against the pole 12 or any other part of the aperture access enabling device 19. In particular, small or flexible products could partly enter the space between the inner wall 51 and the pole 12 and get jammed therebetween, effectively preventing accurate weighing of the products located inside the container 32. This can be effectively mitigated by the upper flange 53. The top of the outer wall 50, the inner wall 51, or the position of the flange 53 represents an upper limit for loading or stacking products inside the container 32 in order to ensure that products do not flow or fall over the edge of the container 32.

Thus, the container 32 has substantially the same size and shape as the space inside the casing 10 and is thus adapted to fit snugly inside the casing 10. The walls 50, 51 are substantially parallel with the side walls 21 of the casing and the pole 12, respectively. There is no need for any space between the inner wall surface of the casing 10 and the outer wall surface of the outer wall 50 of the container 32. Similarly, the surface of the inner wall 51 facing towards the pole 12 will not leave any significant space between the container 32 and the pole 12. The determining design parameter is instead that there is no interference with vertical movement of the container 32 by the casing 10 or pole 12.

The term substantial is intended to indicate that there is not significant deviation from size, shape or of being parallel while at the same time taking into consideration that minor deviations would not bring a particular embodiment outside the scope of the invention. As such, while it should be possible to rely on the general impression given by a particular machine, any deviation that is less than a few millimeters or at least less than a few centimeters, or less than 5% of the total size of the size of the casing 10 in the direction the deviation is measured should at least be considered to fall inside what is meant with substantially in the present disclosure.

Conceptually, any part of the pole 12 extending into the casing 10 and containing parts of the aperture access enabling device 19 can be considered to be part of the aperture access enabling device 19. Consequently, when the present description or claims refer to the inner wall 51 as encircling the aperture access enabling device 19, this may equally well include a part of the pole 12 extending into the casing 10, or any other movable or stationary part of the aperture access enabling device 19.

As a result of the arrangement described above, the vending products do not have to have a stable outer shell (such as e.g. a beverage can), but could be soft or flexible enabling the vending machine to be used for a large variety of products. The base 52 of the container 23 is placed on top of the weight sensors 24. The embodiment illustrated in the drawings inlcude four weight sensors. However, the number of weight sensors 24 required may be reduced, even as low as to only one, provided that the container 32 can move freely and exert the same pressure onto the weight sensor or sensors irrespective of where in the container a product is positioned. Placement of products inside the container 32 is illustrated in the example of Fig. 3 as a chocolate bar 30 and a beverage can 31.

The inside of the container 32 may be free of dividing walls. Thus, a single continuous space can be provided for storing the products 30, 31. This provides the benefit that the products 30, 31 can have any shape or size as long as they fit into the container 32 and through the aperture 15. Due to omitting compartments or dividing walls within the container 32, the products 30, 31 do not have to be sorted or carefully stacked within a specific compartment. Many prior art vending machines require sorting of specific products in assigned compartments and some even make it necessary to place the products into certain positions of a spiral which dispenses the products upon request. Product recognition will be described in further detail below.

A recognition module can identify which of the products 30, 31 is removed out of the container 10 during a purchasing process by determining the weight difference before and after the purchasing process by means of a weight recognition module. For this purpose, a sample storage saves the weights of all products 30, 31 stored in the container 32.

According to the vending machine of the present invention a weight recognition module measures a total weight, Wtotall, of the weight of vending products prior to removal, and a total weight, Wtotal2 after the removal. The weight of each product 30, 31 in the container 32 are available to the recognition module.

The user has removed a quantity, Wprod, products from the container 32, a balance between Wtotall -Wtotal2. The weight before removal of the products and the weight after the removal is measured by the weight sensors 24, and data from the weight sensors 24 is supplied to the weight recognition module. The difference, Wprod, between Wtotall -Wtotal2 is estimated. Data regarding Wprod is supplied to the recognition module so that quantity and identification of products removed can be calculated by the recognition module. With the present invention, if for example soft balls or golf balls are sold, refilling the vending machine simply requires removal of the lid 14 and the soft balls can be dumped into the container 32 until it is full, which allows a very easy handling.

The camera 28 can be used both as deterrent against theft and for recognition of the products 30, 31 while the products 30, 31 are stored in the container 32 (the removed product is then the one which is not present anymore after the purchasing process) or during removal from the container 32. Product recognition will be described in further detail below. The camera 28 may be mounted inside the casing 10 as illustrated in Fig. 3, in the upper end of the piston 20 (in particular in the upper surface of the piston 20), or in the curved part of the display holder 17 (underneath the tablet computer and directed towards the aperture). In Fig. 3, the camera 28 is positioned such that its angle of view can capture all of the products within the container 32. At least one camera 28 is necessary for visual recognition of products, but there could also be provided more than one camera 28. Having more cameras 28 may make the recognition of products more reliable and the overall angle of view wider, but may make an image processing more complex and slower. In the illustrated embodiment of Fig. 3, the camera 28 is provided within the casing 10. However it would also be possible to attach the camera outside the container, namely mount it to the display holder 17, e.g. underneath the user interface 18 shown in Fig. 1, such that the camera is primarily directed towards the aperture 15 in order to capture images of the products while they are removed from the container 32 through the aperture 15. The camera 28 can also be integrated into the upper surface of the piston 20 and directed upwards, which would have the benefit that the products which are removed through the aperture 15 necessarily pass by in between the aperture 15 and the retracted piston 20 and would thus also pass by the upwardly arranged camera. This in turn would have the advantage that the camera is capturing the removed product from underneath (and on an opposite side to the hand of the user) making it unlikely that the hand of the user is covering the product to an extent which would negatively influence the product recognition.

Fig. 4 shows a three-dimensional view from above into the casing 10. This Figure shows the already described base plate 23 with the weight sensors 24 mounted thereon in all four corners and the attachment of the base plate 23 to the flange 25 of the pole 12 by means of screws. The container 32 is not illustrated in Fig. 4.

Figs. 5a and 5b show the display holder 17 holding a tablet computer 33 as user interface 18. Fig. 5a shows basically a front view of the straightened display holder 17. As illustrated, the display holder 17 comprises a band-shaped leg 34 at the upper end of which a structure 35 is attached or monolithically formed with. The structure 35 is adapted to encase a tablet computer 33. Fig. 5b is a side view of the display holder 17 in a final shape. The leg 34 comprises (when attached to the casing 10) in an area above the lid 14 a 90° curvature towards the aperture 15 and at a position at the lower end of the structure 35 a 145° curvature backwards. Reference numeral 36 indicates a cover for closing the structure 35 on the back side which may be lockable. The display holder 17 is made of acrylate polymer or polycarbonate. The display holder 17 could also be made of metal and bent into the shape as shown in Fig. 5b. Necessary cables 37 can be guided inside the display holder 17 through appropriate passages. The display holder 17 may be attached to the inside of the casing 10, wherein for this purpose, the lid 14 may be provided with an appropriate recess. This way of attachment hides power cables and data cables leading to the controller and other components. Optionally, there may be provided a card reader 49 at the user interface 18, which is operatively connected to the user interface 18 (e.g. plugged into a tablet computer). The card reader 49 may be adapted to read payment cards (e.g. credit cards) or smart cards by way of magnetic stripes while the cards are swiped through the card reader 49, it may be adapted to read a chip of the cards while the cards are inserted into the card reader 49, or the card reader 49 may be an NFC reader. The card reader 49 may also be capable of reading an ID card of the user by scanning the ID card or by reading chip integrated into the ID card. A smart card may be a card provided by the vending machine manufacturer or the vending machine operator which is adapted to identify a user.

While the embodiments described above include a number of aspects consistent with the principles of the invention, many alternatives may be contemplated. For example, while the controller 26 is described as a computer controlling the sensors and the actuator, while the user interface 18 is described as a tablet computer which controls the display, communication with the user interface for user identification and payment handling, as well as network communication, which will be described in further detail below, it will be realized that these two computers could be combined into one, or they could be configured such that tasks were shared between them in a different manner than described above.

It will also be understood by those with skill in the art that the overall shape of the device can be different (for example circular, or even ball shaped like a globe). Also, the aperture may have a different position in the lid, and the closing mechanism can, for example, be in the form of a door that is hinged or a plate that is moved, or slides, parallel to the lid in order to open and close the aperture. In trusted environments it may even be contemplated that the aperture access enabling device 19 or closing device initiates an alarm that sounds if a user reaches inside the machine without first logging in or otherwise identifying themselves. The alarm may, for example, be operatively connected with one or more light sources (e.g. lasers) and corresponding light detectors configured such that the light from a light source will be prevented from reaching its corresponding light sensor if a hand is inserted into the machine. After identification of a user, the alarm may be disabled until a transaction has been completed.

The number of weight sensors required may also be reduced, even as low as to only one, provided that the container 32 can move freely and exert the same pressure onto the weight sensor irrespective of where in the machine a product is positioned.

Finally, it will also be understood that while compartments for separating different types of products have been described as unnecessary, the use of some sort of

compartmentalization or subdivision of the space inside the machine is not inconsistent with the principles of the invention.

Fig. 6 shows schematically the communication ability of the vending machine with a remote server 38. For this purpose, the server 38 is connected to the internet and accessible by a plurality of vending machines via the internet. The vending machine establishes the connection to the internet (and thus to the server 38), by a network communication device 39 which may be included in the controller 26 or which may be included in the user interface 18, e.g. the communication interface of a tablet computer. The network communication device 39 and the user communication device 63 (Fig. 3) could be separate devices or the same device depending on the chosen kind of wireless communication (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth). The network communication device 39 may establish wireless communication 41 to a mobile communications network used by mobile phones, or establish wireless communication 41 to a Wi-Fi router 40 which is connected to the internet. The network communication device 39 could also establish such a communication in form or a wired communication. The communication with the remote server 38 allows central and server controlled pricing such that the prices of certain products can be changed centrally by means of the server 38 instead of changing these data at each of the vending machines. Further, the server 38 can provide the vending machines centrally with product information, e.g. product information that is given to the user or product information that relate to the purchasing process, such as data saved in a sample storage, which will be described in further detail below. The server 38 can further receive the inventory status of the vending machines such that it can be centrally determined when a vending machine needs to be refilled without spending time checking each vending machine regularly. Further, it enables central logging of sales, including the number already sold of each individual product.

Fig. 7 shows a block diagram of a control scheme of the vending machine according to an embodiment of the present invention. Box 26 schematically illustrates the controller. The controller 26 may be running an operating system such as Windows or Linux and may be supported by Java. A user 42 may identify himself via the user interface 18 which can be the user's own mobile device, such as a mobile phone or a tablet computer (e.g. based on Android, Windows or iOS), or it can be a device attached or integral to the vending machine, such as a touch screen, a keyboard, a tablet computer or a combination of these. The identification can also be conducted by a combination of the above, for example via a cloud service 47, e.g. Twilio or Link Mobility. In such a case the cloud service 47 is a SMS-service which might be used for authorization in the login process. For example, when the user logs in on the touchscreen he enters his phone number, and cloud service 47 will send a SMS to that number with an authorizing code, and the user enters that code for authorization. It is used as a two-way authorization process. In case of the user interface 18 being the users own mobile device, there may be provided application software 43 which can be installed on the mobile device and which manages the communication between the mobile device of the user 42 and the vending machine. It is also possible to recognize the user 42 by means of face recognition using a camera of the user interface 18 (e.g. the tablet computer 33). Yet another alternative is to use a fingerprint reader installed as part of the vending machine or on the user's own mobile device. Thus, a user 42 identifies himself at the vending machine before a transaction process using his own mobile device (e.g. the user's personal phone's NFC), or in case of the user interface 18 being provided at the vending machine by entering a pin code, by inserting a smart card or his credit card into the card reader 49, or e.g. by face or fingerprint recognition. The user interface 18 may communicate with the controller 26 and other components such as the camera 28, the weight sensors 24 wireless (e.g. Wi-Fi or Bluetooth), i.e. communication between user interface and sensors is wireless. The controller 26 (or, optionally, the user interface device) verifies the identification by communicating with the remote server 38. After the approved identification, the controller 26 opens the aperture access enabling device 19 by means of the driving unit 29 which retracts the piston 20 into its opened position. The user 42 can then reach with his hand through the aperture 15 into the container 32 and remove one or more of the products 30, 31. According to some embodiments, the controller may include a sample storage 44 which stores sample descriptions consisting of pictures with drawn outlines of the products 30, 31 to be sold. The sample image files stored in the sample storage 44 provide outlines and imprint images from different angles of the product. The sample files could be created for example by providing an imaginary sphere around the product which sphere is divided by a grid such as the longitude and latitude of the earth which grid lines are provided for example in intervals of 10° (or any other interval). Then from the angle of every intersection point of these grid lines an image is taken and from this image, an outline of the product and the imprint is saved. Thus, the sample storage 44 is also a database providing a comparison basis for a product recognition executed by a recognition module 45. The recognition module 45 executes recognition software 46 such as SentiSight® SDK. The modules mentioned here, can be hardware or hardware- software combinations. In order to recognize the products in the container 32 or in the vicinity of the aperture 15, the recognition module 45, in particular camera based object recognition module 60, receive image information from the camera 28 which can be a fixedly installed camera or which can be a controllable camera which can be moved (e.g. moved up, down, left and right) as directed by control signals from the controller 26, in order to enlarge the angle of view of the camera. The object recognition module 60 are adapted to recognize each of the products stored in the container 32 by comparing the image data from the sample storage 44 by means of the recognition software 46. In particular, the object recognition module 60 recognizes the products by comparing the outline (the shape) of the products with the stored samples and by comparing the imprint on the products with the stored samples. This way, the object recognition module 60 is capable of recognizing all the products 30, 31 present in the container 32 and determine which of the products has been removed when the purchasing process is finished, because this/these product(s) is/are not present inside the container 32 anymore. Or, in case the camera 28 is arranged in the vicinity of the aperture 15, the object recognition module 60 recognizes which of the products 30, 31 is removed out through the aperture 15. In addition to, or alternative to the image recognition described above, the recognition module 45 can identify which of the products 30, 31 is removed out of the container 32 during a purchasing process by determining the weight difference before and after the purchasing process by means of weight recognition module 61. For this purpose, the sample storage saves the weights of all products 30, 31 stored in the container 32. This weight recognition can be executed in addition to the image recognition in order to improve accuracy or it can be executed alternatively to the image recognition. Furthermore, in addition to at least one of the image recognition and the weight recognition, or alternatively thereto, the recognition module 45 can recognize the products 30, 31 removed from the container 32 based on RFID-technology by means of RFID recognition module 62. RFID is the abbreviation for radio-frequency identification, wherein identification tags are attached to the products 30, 31, which identification tags transfer data to a receiving module by means of electromagnetic fields. For this purpose, the sample storage saves the RFID data of all products 30, 31 stored in the container 32. The data received from the RFID tags can be compared to the sample data stored in the sample storage 44 in order to recognize the products 30, 31 as they are removed out through the aperture 15. An RFID reader would have to be placed near the aperture 15.

After the purchasing process, the user 42 indicates through the user interface 18 the end of the purchasing process and the controller 26 closes the aperture access enabling device 19. In order to give the user 42 appropriate feedback after the purchasing process is finished, the controller 26 initiates the sending of a text message via a cloud service 47, e.g. Twilio, to a mobile phone 48 associated with the user 42.

This mobile phone 48 may be the one which is used as user interface 18. Payment can be conducted by a payment method which is registered in the account of the user, by mobile payment (by means of the mobile phone) or by a credit card which is read by the card reader 49 (this can be the credit card which is also used to initially identify the user).

According to one aspect of the invention, the user 42 can indicate interests or preferences such that the user 42 receives additional messages, e.g. coupons which are personalized to his interests or preferences from the vending machine in addition to receiving the products 30, 31. As the products 30, 31 which the user 42 is buying or has bought before also indicate the interests of the user 42, it is possible to personalize the messages or coupons for the user 42 based on the current purchase and/or the purchase history of the user 42. The coupons can be personalized to age, gender, shopping interests, purchase history, vending machine location, home address, work address, etc., as well as any commercial campaign requested by an advertiser.

Fig. 8 shows another embodiment of the vending machine according to the invention. Compared to the embodiment shown in Fig. 1, the vending machine of this embodiment does not include the display holder 17 and the piston 20. The user interface of this embodiment is formed by the user communication device 63 which communicates with a mobile device of the user. The aperture access enabling device 19 in this embodiment is formed by a light barrier device 64 which comprises a light transmitter on a side wall and a light sensor on an opposite side wall, or which comprises a light transmitter- sensor on a side wall and a mirror on the opposite sidewall. The light barrier device 64 is capable of emitting several light beams (e.g. also including laser beams) along an array such that a plurality of parallel light beams 65 is emitted towards the opposite side wall where the sensor or the mirror of the light barrier device 64 is located. The light beams 65 may be colorful for an attractive appearance, and in order to be visible they may partly be directed towards a medium that will subject the light to diffuse reflection, e.g. plastic parts of the vending machine, or even an artificial mist (steam, a spray of droplets or something similar). The light beams 65 may also look like prison/sprinkler bars, visually blocking the hole. When access into the container 32 is enabled, the light barrier device 64 is turned-off. The light beams 65 thus are extending in parallel and horizontally underneath the aperture 15. When access into the container 32 is prohibited, the light barrier device 64 is turned on. In the turned on state, the light barrier device 64 can recognize the interruption of one or more of the light beams 65 and the vending machine can thus recognize an unauthorized access into the casing 10. The aperture 15 is not physically blocked, but if the user, or any other person, puts his hand in through the aperture 15 without logging in, an alarm would go off and a picture would be taken of the user or person (in embodiments where the camera is directed towards the user). Thus, a user has to log in or otherwise be identified before being able to reach with his arm into the casing 10. The user can log in with his mobile device, e.g. mobile phone, communicating with the vending machine with either NFC or other communication. After logging in, the aperture 15 would no longer be visually blocked with the light beams 65 and the user can reach through the aperture 15 into the casing 10 of the vending machine and pick a product. The product is recognized by one or more of the recognition modules described before, e.g. with RFID and/or camera. The purchase of the product will then be registered on the customer's account. This embodiment would have the benefit that without the screen and the actuator the cost would be reduced, and it could be good for places giving out coffee capsules or as an inventory control.

While this embodiment has been described as having no display or screen, it is consistent with the principles of the invention to include a display or screen, e.g. a tablet computer, in embodiments without the actuator or other physical blocking means. Reference is now made to Fig. 9, which illustrates an exemplary method that can be performed by a vending machine operating in accordance with the principles of the invention.

The method starts in an initialization step 1101. This step may be selected from many methods that are well known in the art, such as a user pushing an activation button, a proximity detector (e.g. a camera) detecting the presence of a user, etc. The step may also be merged with the following step 1102, in which user input identifying the user 42 is received from the user interface 18. In other words, the vending machine may first be initialized and present a prompt for user identification in an initialization step, or a user input of identification may serve as the initialization step.

The user interface 18 may be any combination of the devices and capabilities that have already been described, and for the purposes of the description of the purchase or transaction process, the user interface 18 will be considered as including any

communication interface involved in the process of exchanging information with a user or an external device operated by the user. As such, the user interface 18 may be any combination of the tablet computer 33 or other display device integral to the vending machine, the card reader 49 (e.g. magnetic strip reader or smartcard reader), the camera 28, the user communication device 63 (e.g. a Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, NFC or other wireless interface capable of communicating directly with a device operated by the user), or network communication device 39 (e.g. wireless or wired communication with an external network, for example a cellular mobile network and intermediary devices including servers which in turn forward information to or from a device used by the user).

This means that the input received in step 1102 may be received as user input from a keypad or keyboard or touchscreen, from the card reader 49 reading user identity from a credit card or smartcard, it may be based on face recognition from camera input or fingerprint recognition from a fingerprint reader, user credentials received directly from a user device over the user communication device 63 or indirectly via the network communication device 39, for example as a text (SMS) message received from a cellular mobile network. Also, as described above, networked services such as Twilio or Link Mobility may be involved.

As soon as the user 42 is identified by the controller 26 based on the information received in step 1102, the aperture access enabling device 19 may enable access to the items in the vending machine in step 1103. The aperture access enabling device may be any of the devices described above configured to enable or prevent access to the products or items stored inside the vending machine, either physically by blocking the aperture 15, or logically preventing access by issuing an alarm if an attempt is made at accessing items without prior user identification.

After the aperture access enabling device 19 has enabled access, the controller 26 monitors input from the sensors that are configured to detect items that are removed from the container 32. As described above in connection with the recognition module 45, several types of sensors can be used either alone or in combination. Examples of sensors include one or more weight sensors 24 that detect the weight of the item that has been removed, one or more cameras 28 that capture one or more images of the item that is being removed and subject the one or more images to an image recognition or feature extraction that is capable of detecting characteristic visual features of the item, and an RFID reader that can read an RFID tag attached to the item. When the controller 26 receives input from the sensors, the input can be analyzed and the type of item can be recognized in step 1105. This analysis and recognition can be based on a comparison of the received and analyzed sensor input with a catalog of characteristic features associated with respective items or products. This catalog can be stored in a database or some other data format in local memory in the vending machine. Alternatively, the information can be available from a remote server.

When the recognition has been made in step 1105, the controller may request a confirmation of acceptance from the user in step 1106. This request may be presented on a display of the vending machine (e.g. user interface mounted to the vending machine), or as a message transmitted directly or indirectly (e.g. over a mobile network or the Internet) to a device operated by the user to be displayed there. Included in the request for confirmation may be a price, or any other conditions the user must accept in order to keep the item. Such conditions may, for example, be to be included on a mailing list, or to be registered in a database of users maintained by a remote server.

Various embodiments of the invention may receive confirmation from the user in different ways. According to some embodiments, the user confirms using a graphical user interface, such as the tablet computer described above. Alternatively, or in addition, the user may have to enter payment information by swiping a credit card or causing a smart card or a card or other device with an embedded NFC tag to be read by a corresponding reader attached to the vending machine, as described above. Some or part of the confirmation information may also be received from a mobile device operated by the user, for example over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or as SMS, or over the Internet, for example by operating a web browser installed on the mobile device.

The information received as confirmation may include credit card information from a card reader, mobile payment information from a mobile device associated with the identified user, information identifying a debit account associated with the identified user, and information confirming the identified user's acceptance to receive one or more messages from a set of messages stored remotely.

If confirmation is not received, for example within a predetermined time or a message of rejection is received instead, as determined in step 1107, the method proceeds to step 1108 where a cancellation is initiated. Cancellation may involve prompting the user to return the item to the container, registering that the item is indeed returned to the container (in which a reverse of the detection of removal of an item), and cancellation of all pending transaction steps. Otherwise, i.e. if confirmation is received (or if the item is not returned within a predetermined time limit), the transaction is finalized in step 1109. Finalization of the transaction may include transfer of funds by a payment service, registration of the user in a user database, or the implementation of any other conditions accepted by the user. Finalization may also include registration of data related to the transaction for bookkeeping and statistics purposes. The finalization may also include issuance of a receipt, a coupon or any other message related to the transaction. Such a message may be received immediately or delayed, and only once or repeatedly. For example, a remote server may include a set of available messages, and the message or messages sent to the user may be chosen from a subset of this set of messages, where the subset are messages that are selectable based on criteria associated with the removed item (i.e. with the one or more characteristics used to identify the item, or the identified item itself).

One aspect of the present invention enables the provision of an automatically updated inventory list of the products currently stored in the vending machine. The sample storage 44 is a database providing a comparison basis for a product recognition executed by a recognition module 45. The sample storage 44 contains the weights of all products 30, 31 stored in the container 10. The weight recognition module measures a total weight, Wtotall, of the weight of vending products prior to removal. Based on Wtotall and the weight of the products 30, 31, the quantity of products can be estimated and stored in sample storage 44. The weight recognition module measures the total weight, Wtotall, of the weight of vending products prior to removal, and a total weight, Wtotal2 after the removal. The weight of each product 30, 31 in the container 32 are available to the recognition module.

The user has removed a quantity, Wprod, products from the container 32, a balance between Wtotall -Wtotal2. The weight before removal of the products and the weight after the removal is measured by the weight sensors 24, and data from the weight sensors 24 is supplied to the weight recognition module, the balance, Wprod, between Wtotall -Wtotal2 is estimated. Data regarding Wprod is supplied to the recognition module so that quantity and identification of products removed can be estimated by the recognition module. When a product 30, 31 is removed from the container 10 and the product has been recognized by the recognition module 45, the sample storage 44 will be automatically updated. Data stored in the database of the sample storage 44 can be accessed by a user or sent to a provider of vending products.

In some embodiments of the invention the vending machine is able to accept products from authorized users, wherein the vending machine functions as a reverse vending machine. Reverse vending functions in the same manner as vending, except that the weight of the combined products in the vending machine subsequent to the transaction, Wtotal2, will be higher than the weight prior to the transaction, Wtotall, and the difference between the two, Wtotal2-Wtotall, will represent the weight of the product(s) that have been returned to the vending machine, Wprod.

It is consistent with these embodiments to enable both vending and reverse vending at the same time. The vending machine may then be used as a repository for objects that are used temporarily by authorized users and then returned to the machine. The user may then only be charged for the number of products that are not returned (and, possibly, a fee for the use of the products that are returned). This may, for example, be used for golf balls at a golf court, tennis balls at a tennis court, and for other itmes that users may be interested in borrowing, but not purchasing.

It should be noted that the term returned as used above does not intend to be limited to return of items that have been removed from the same vending machine. If an authorized user has obtained a returnable item by any other means, including a different vending machine, it is for the pursposes of the present disclosure considered a return if that item is placed inside the container 32 in accordance with the description above.

It is consistent with the principles of the invention to combine vending and reverse vending. As such, a transaction may include removal of one product and return of another. For such purposes the vending machine may be configured to identify both removed and returned products and calculate a balance for the transaction based on, for example, a calculated credit for the returned products and a calculated debit for the removed products.

Trusted environments, for example at a workplace, access to items may be permanently enabled or enabled without prior identification of the user. The identification step 1102 can then be combined with confirmation receipt in step 1107.

In addition to the features described above, the vending machine of all embodiments may be provided with the following features:

Cooling function: Optionally, the vending machine may be provided with a cooling function in order to cool the inside of the casing.

Data analysis: As the vending machine makes it possible to acquire all kinds of data such as regarding the vending machine environment, the user and the product, it allows combining these data in order to achieve more sophisticated statistics and analysis. These results could be used for marketing purposes.

User data acquisition: In case of registered users, data regarding every user can be acquired. This allows individual user statistics, and also the user themselves provide user information during the web registration.

Social network integration: Do to the vending machines being connected to the remote server 38 and thus being connected to the world wide web, the vending machine allows a social network integration which means that user can share or forward offers, gifts or coupons to other users via social networks.

Eye tracker: The image processing can additionally comprise the feature to recognize and track the eyes of users and/or people looking at the vending machine. This allows determining where the user/people look at, in particular at which products they look at or at which advertising area on the vending machine they look at. Having this kind of information allows analyzing the attractiveness of packaging, advertisement, products, design etc. Thus, it would give feedback for marketing purposes which could be used for improving marketing.

Additional network cameras: In addition to the cameras described above, one or more additional cameras can be attached to the vending machine these cameras may be configured to capture a view of people passing through the area surrounding the vending machine. The cameras may be in communication with the vending machine and/or the remote server 38. Image processing capabilities located either in the camera itself, in the vending machine or in the server may be used to detect and count the number of people passing by the machine. Furthermore, face detection may be used to detect the number of people who actually look at the vending machine. This information may be used to analyze the attractiveness of the vending machine in various locations by analysis of whether the vending machine catches the attention of people passing by. In particular it may be possible to determine the fraction of passersby that look at the vending machine, and the fraction that actually choose to interact with the machine and complete a transaction. The network cameras could also be useful in protecting the vending machine from damage or theft.

Coupons: A further example on how coupons could be assigned to a user could be realized as described in the following: When the user logs in at the vending machine by means of his mobile phone using his phone number, the mobile phone number may be shared if the log in is conducted by means of NFC (with NFC the user's phone may share the phone number when swiping the phone). This way the vending machine saves the phone number after log in. When the user chooses his preferred value coupon there will be a short text explaining that the coupon is sent to an application software after the purchase. When the user logs out after the purchase he receives a text message with an internet link. The user can click the link and may be directed to a website. On the webpage the user may be asked to enter personal details, such as first name, last name, mail, etc. Thereafter, the user receives a link to download an application, and when the application is downloaded it automatically adds the above information to the personal profile of the user. Then the user receives the value coupon in the application and it can be used instantly.

Further, the disclosure of this invention includes the following aspects, and the applicant reserves the right to claim one or more of the aspects as follows: List of reference signs

10 casing

1 1 stand

12 pole

13 ground plate

14 lid

15 aperture

16 lock

17 display holder

18 user interface

19 aperture access enabling device

20 piston

21 side walls

22 bottom cover

23 base plate

24 weight sensors

25 flange

26 controller

27 actuator

28 camera

29 driving unit

30 chocolate bar

31 beverage can

32 container

33 tablet computer

34 leg of display holder

35 structur

36 cover

37 cables

38 remote server

39 network communication device

40 Wi-Fi Router

41 wireless communication

42 user

43 application software

44 sample storage recognition module

recognition software

cloud service

mobile phone

card reader

outer walls

inner wall

base

flange

camera based object recognition module weight recognition module

RFID recognition mean

user communication device

light barrier device

light beams