Cream of the crop
MooBella's Unix-flavored ice cream, and a vanity press for the masses.
By Peter Lewis

(FORTUNE Magazine) - Here's the scoop: Using Internet-era technology, a Massachusetts company has figured out how to make and sell a cup of fresh, custom-made, premium ice cream from a vending machine in 45 seconds. And a California company is getting ready to launch an Internet-based service that allows poets, cooks, family historians, and other writers to create and publish store-quality hardcover and paperback books.

The MooBella ice-cream machine and the Blurb BookSmart do-it-yourself book publishing service are just two of nearly 70 new products and technologies unveiled recently at the Demo 2006 conference (for more on the gathering, see "Bright Lights, Big Money").

MooBella robotic ice-cream machine
MooBella robotic ice-cream machine
Bright lights, big money
At the Demo conference--American Idol for entrepreneurs--showmanship and gamesmanship can make you rich. (Full story)

The MOOBELLA robotic ice-cream manufactory and vending machine is being tested in Boston, a city that is to gourmet ice cream what Seattle is to coffee. The MooBella machine is not a product that consumers will buy directly, but since 94% of U.S. households buy ice cream each year, it's likely that the technology could touch more people than, for example, high-definition TV or MP3 players.

The engineers at MooBella (www.moobella.com) have concocted a vending machine, slightly larger than the Coke and Pepsi machines we see everywhere, that uses entirely "dry" ingredients to aerate, flavor, mix, and flash-freeze a fresh cup of, say, caramel ice cream with walnuts, or vanilla with cookies 'n' cream, or mocha with chocolate chips. "Dry," in industry vernacular, means the ingredients can be transported and stored without the need for special trucks or temperature controls.

All the ingredients are modular and sealed in hygienic pouches. The computer that controls the process is based on the Unix operating system, and the machine is programmed to report instantly, using wireless Internet, when it needs supplies or maintenance.

The consumer feeds money into the machine--the price per scoop will be set by vendors, but $2 to $2.50 is the guess--and uses the machine's large LCD touchscreen display to choose one of 12 flavors plus any of five mix-ins (nuts, cookie crumbles, and so on).

Forty-five seconds later, the machine delivers a freshly made scoop that, based on my exhaustive testing, tastes delicious despite a slight gumminess (with the computerized MooBella machine, the fix could be a simple tweak).

Blurb BookSmart printing system

BLURB'S BookSmart software for on-demand book printing, meanwhile, represents the next generation of desktop publishing.

Do-it-yourself book publishing is not new; Apple's iPhoto and other online photo services can assemble your favorite digital pictures into an attractive hardcover book, but such picture books are suitable mainly for folks who think a picture is worth a thousand words.

Beginning in March, Blurb (www.blurb.com) plans to offer a similar publishing service for people who lean more toward the thousand words part of the equation. At prices ranging from $30 for a single slender volume to $80 for a 400-page hardcover epic, with discounts for higher press runs, the BookSmart software provides online tools and templates an author can use to create an illustrated family cookbook, a travel photo essay that's more essay than photos, or--the ultimate in vanity publishing--even a print version of your online blog. It takes an hour or more, depending on complexity, to assemble and customize a book, but the result, mailed to you in a few days, is truly of professional quality.

For writers who are more confident of finding a wide audience, Blurb will even stockpile, sell, and ship your latest masterpiece to waiting fans.

Petbot

Another Demo winner: Pleo, an amazingly lifelike baby dinosaur robot from the co-creator of Furby. Manufacturer Ugobe says Pleo will toddle to stores in time for the holidays. Around $200, www.ugobe.com Top of page

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