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Message on a Bottle: A Personalized Information Technology

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Using a smartphone to program scrolling LED displays on Medea Vodka bottles.

Pairing a smartphone app with Apple's iBeacon technology allows users to program messages that scroll across the LED display on Medea Vodka bottles.

Credit: Medea Vodka

Medea Inc. has firmly established its vodka bottles on the Internet of Things (IoT), with all the security and sharing possibilities that prospect holds. The company claims to be the only vodka maker worldwide affixing customizable light-emitting diode (LED) message bands to each bottle.

"The vodka itself is very good; produced for us by a distiller that dates back to 1777 in Holland," said Medea vice president Marie Moretti, "but we attribute its instant success to its message-on-a-bottle technology, which crosses generations. Millennials want products that speak to them quickly, but it also appeals to 30-, 40-, 50- or even 60-year-olds as the message scrolls by, over and over, around the bottle."

The LED message band comes with six pre-programmed messages from which to choose, such as "Happy Birthday," "Congratulations," and "Thank you." In addition, one can add customized messages with a smartphone, such "Julia, will you marry me?" (and whether she says yes or no, you have the bottle of vodka with which to celebrate, or commiserate).

The message band functions like a ticker tape, with the message (with an upper limit of 200 characters) continuously scrolling. The LED display turns off after 45 minutes to save battery life. The batteries will last 18 to 20 hours, and the app is available for free in the iTunes App Store or on Google Play.

Because it uses Apple's iBeacon Bluetooth technology, the Medea App is able to locate all nearby bottles without having to poll every Bluetooth-enabled device, cutting discovery and programming time from minutes to seconds. Apple's iBeacon also allows the Medea App to keep constant track of all nearby bottles, as well as whether they are registered and available to receive messages.

Once a bottle is paired with a particular smartphone, it cannot be controlled by another phone until the first smartphone unpairs with it. Owners, however, can "share" their bottle with others by adding their email addresses to the app. Anyone whose email address is authorized gets an invitation from Medea to download the free app, which allows them to see all the bottles they are sharing and to set, modify, or delete unique messages of their own--putting the bottle firmly on the Internet of Things.

Medea also claims its bottles cannot be hijacked by apps imitating its own, by virtue of a Unique Device ID (UDID) and password which must be supplied to the bottle before it can be controlled by the app.

Medea Vodka used private funds to make a deal with the distillery in Holland, and another with a Chinese manufacturer for the LED message band. The company built its own assembly plant in the U.S. to put all the pieces together, and to enforce strict quality control so customers are never disappointed about buying a $28 bottle of vodka.

The company sells directly to big-box distributors, instead of marketing to lower-tier distributors or directly to customers.

"We have had a great reaction for our distributors," Moretti said. "We launched in the summer of 2014 with Costco, who wanted to start with just 13 Costco stores in California. The response was so fast and positive, that we next started shipping to the rest of the Costcos in California, then on to Hawaii, to Florida and now we are in 40 states at Costco, Sam's Club, Safeway, Albertsons, Von's, SaveMart, Bevmo, Lucky, FoodMaxx, Publix, and local liquor stores through distributors like Allied Beverage Group, Glazer’s, Major Brands, Republic National Distributing Company, United Liquors, Wirtz Beverage Group, and Young’s Market Company."

Moretti said the company has patents to protect it from copycats, "and our patents don't just cover spirits, but cover similar personalization of other items. In fact, we are currently building prototypes of other products that we think could be similarly personalized, such as flower pots or vases."

He added the company also is still filing for patents to protect its technologies under development, such as social media "sharing" that allows people to communicate with one another via messages on their bottles, as well as discovering where connected bottles are located, directly posting to their bottles from social media applications like Facebook, Twitter and their personal email accounts, and other ideas the company is keeping close to its vest.

Because of its tight patent control,  Medea has already been approached about licensing its technology to a large European company. It has not accepted yet, Moretti said, because it is focusing on servicing its existing distributors and ultimately its individual customers with new innovations to increase its popularity even more. 

R. Colin Johnson is a Kyoto Prize Fellow who ​​has worked as a technology journalist ​for two decades.


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