Watson, Mix Me a Drink. You Know What I Like.

Author: Corin Hirsch       

Attendees at Convening Leaders 2017 in Austin, which wrapped up earlier last week, may have walked right by the Vince Young Steakhouse, in an unassuming gray building just one block from the Austin Convention Center. Ten months ago, the space — then painted blue — was a Twitter-trending hotspot, as tech giant IBM took it over during the 2016 South by Southwest Conference and Festival (SXSW) to show attendees how sensory analytics and personalization might be the future of events.

“The terms ‘IBM and ‘cool’ are usually mutually exclusive,” said Ishraq “Ish” Benhalim, director of content creation for George P. Johnson Experience Marketing Agency (GPJ) during a CL session titled “Sensory Analytics: Delivering an Experience-Focused Event.” For the interactive portion of SXSW, GPJ collaborated with “Big Blue” to disprove that maxim by creating an immersive environment inside the 5,000-square-foot steakhouse. For five days, it was renamed the IBM Cognitive Lab, a place where visitors could interact with robots and technology driven by IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, in a variety of micro-environments that specifically did not include demos or presentations. “We wanted them to come through and feel like they interacted with Watson in a significant way,” Benhalim said.

The buildout took seven days, and was designed to guide attendees on a personalized journey that began with the five questions they were asked upon arrival about their preferences and current mood. The resulting data was then encoded in an RFID tag, which visitors could tap at various points in the lab to initiate personalized experiences — virtual-reality spinning, a live-action mural, personalized tacos created by “Chef Watson,” and the buzziest experience of all, drinks at the Cognitive Cocktail Bar.


There, bartenders with tablets would read the RFID data encoded in a guest’s wristband and then choose one of 15 mixed drinks, based their customer’s preferences, mood, and energy level. For instance, if a visitor had reported that they felt “beachy” upon arrival, they would be given a refreshing, fruity drink.

The night before the IBM Cognitive Lab opened, Benhalim was worried that SXSW attendees might not show up to the lab. As it turned out, the IBM Cognitive Lab became one of the three most-trending places on social media during SXSW 2016, and the line to get in grew longer each day. The bartenders were slammed: The Cognitive Cocktail Bar served 6,497 drinks over five days. In fact, the bar’s popularity threatened to bankrupt the experiment early, so Benhalim and her team adjusted the API in real time to “tap people out” at two drinks over the course of the festival.

All told, 8,514 tag- and sensor-laden registrants were able to experience Chef Watson’s tacos, games of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” with a robot named Marvin, mind-controlled BB-8 droids, developer games, and personalized cocktails inside the steakhouse-slash-lab. The event showed how personality insights, predictive analytics, sensors, and the Internet of Things can drive an unforgettable event. For Benhalim, it was also an example of how data can be used wisely to drive experiences, rather than just sales or marketing.”When you set up these types of engagements, you cannot just take, take, take, from your audience,” she said.

To watch a video of the IBM Cognitive Lab, visit the GPJ site.

Photos by George P. Johnson Experience Marketing Agency.

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