AI turns coffee machine futuristic

News News & events

14 Oct 2019

Making small talk with a virtual barista on a screen while coffee is being made is now a novel reality.

Ara’s second year Bachelor of Information and Communication Technology student Chris Wordsworth was part of an innovative project that created ‘Bella’, New Zealand’s first digital employee that is connected to an ordinary coffee machine and can serve a hot brew the way you like it.

It all started with an email from Wordsworth’s tutor Amit Sarkar (Department of Enterprise and Digital Innovation), asking if he knew anything about Internet of Things (IoT). IoT describes a system of interrelated computing devices that has the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

Wordsworth was intrigued and up for a challenge.

“I found out the idea for the project originated from Director of Technology at Jade Software, Eduard Liebenberger. It included purchasing an ordinary coffee machine and making it IoT enabled. Once I had accomplished that, the company then would programme against that and make the machine make coffee through the internet. It sounded like a lot of fun, so I agreed to be part of it.”

Eduard Liebenberger from Jade Software and Chris Wordsworth worked together to reverse engineer a coffee machine to connect it to virtual barista 'Bella'.  

His original estimate of how long it would take to complete project was four weeks of part time work but in the end the entire system was up and operating in only 10 working days.

Before the hacked coffee machine could be connected to ‘Bella’, the virtual barista, Wordsworth traced all the control circuits to figure out what wires he could cross to tell the machine to make a coffee whenever he wanted it to.

“Once I knew how it communicated with itself, I could inject my own instructions to have it make a coffee as if a button had been physically pressed. Then I connected the controller to the internet so I could send it commands that way.”

To complete the project, an artificial intelligence start-up company called UneeQ came on board to provide the platform giving  ‘Bella’ a “face”, and another company, Ambit, offered their platform to design and run the AI behind Bella’s conversational skills.

“We demonstrated the virtual barista ‘Bella’ for the first time at the Canterbury Tech Cluster. None of the individual components of this experiment had been together in the same room before that day. Initially I had to go through a de-bugging phase because there were some connectivity issues. We ended up having to connect over mobile Internet. It was that morning that we made our first “Bella-made” coffee,” said Wordsworth.

The first 'Bella'-made coffee was served at the Canterbury Tech Cluster. Chris Wordsworth is manning the stall. 

Sarkar said ‘Bella’ was a novel creation.  

“Most people who have experienced this virtual barista are saying this is a different level of conversation. Basically, the person, the gesture and what she is saying is such a matured platform that it feels like you’re actually giving an order to a real person.

“But is it really going to replace a real barista? Definitely not! People who can afford good barista-made coffee will continue to go to cafes. This innovation was more designed for boring coffee machine set ups in workplace environments. If you would add this type of interface, that would lighten up the area,” said Sarkar.

Liebenberger was also satisfied with the outcome and what the team achieved in such a short amount of time. He was impressed how proactive and focused on problem-solving Wordsworth was throughout the project.

“I turned to Ara because of our existing relationship. We have had excellent experience with Ara students, interns and graduates in the past. Going forward we will continue and broaden our existing relationship with Ara - both to give back to the community and help students get meaningful work experience and hiring of Ara graduates.”

‘Bella’ the virtual barista will be serving coffees at the Ara EDI Emerge event in November.

If you want to see what 'Bella' looks like in action head to this article on to watch a video demonstration of her skills.