A trivia vending machine made with a Raspberry Pi

Using a Raspberry Pi to replace the coin box on a food vending machine is a stroke of genius.
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As an educator working at a public library, I keep my eyes peeled for interesting uses of the Raspberry Pi. From where I sit, the Trivia Vending Machine project out of Dallas, Texas, is one of the most creative and interesting uses of these amazing devices. Using a Raspberry Pi to replace the coin box on a food vending machine is a stroke of genius by Greg Needel and his team. The potential uses of this idea are far-reaching. Check out this short YouTube video to see the Trivia Vending Machine in action.

The original Trivia Vending Machine focused on science questions, but you could build a Trivia Vending Machine with any questions—history, civics, literature, and so on. The most engaging uses will be if you encourage students to write their own questions—and answer each others' questions. And consider this: Instead of disbursing food, the vending machine could disburse coupons to local businesses. One way I earn a living is by teaching guitar lessons, and I'd gladly donate a guitar lesson as a coupon for a Trivia Vending Machine. However, a student must rack up a suitable amount of points to earn one of my guitar lessons.

Stretch your imagination a little further. Would it be possible to have logic puzzles for students to solve to get food (or coupons) from the vending machine? Yes, that would not be difficult to create. Maybe Sudoku puzzles, Wordle, KenKen, Sokoban, or any other puzzle. Students could play these puzzles with a touch screen. How about chess? Sure, students could solve chess puzzles to get food (or coupons).

Did you notice in the video that the original Trivia Vending Machine is large and heavy? Designing a smaller one—perhaps one-third the size that fits on a rolling cart—could make for easier transport between schools, libraries, museums, and maker faires.

The inside of a Trivia Vending Machine is composed of stepper motors. You can buy these used on the web. A web search for "used vending machine motors" turns up the Vending World and the VendMedic websites.

If you are a member of a makerspace, tell your fellow members about the Trivia Vending Machine. It's an open invention, not patented, so anyone can build it. (Thank you, Greg Needel.) I imagine the coding for such a device is not too difficult. It would be lovely if someone could create a GitHub repository of such code—and maybe some accompanying explanatory screencasts.

Although the Trivia Vending Machine did not win an award in the Red Bull Creations contest, this invention is still award-worthy. Someone should track down Greg Needel and give him a suitable prize. What should that award look like? It might look like $25k or $50k. I say three cheers for Greg Needel and his creative team. They took the Raspberry Pi in the direction that the inventors of this computer intended—a tinkerer's delight. Bold and beautiful. Bold, beautiful, and open. Could you ask for anything more?

One last thing. The Trivia Vending Machine was created several years ago with an early Raspberry Pi model. Current Raspberry Pi computers are much faster and more responsive. So, any lags in the interaction you notice in the above-mentioned video no longer exist on today's Raspberry Pi models.

Oh, I want one of those candy bars so bad. I'm smacking my lips together. Remind me; how many points do I need to earn to get a Snickers bar? Whatever it takes. I'll do whatever it takes.

Smiling librarian standing in front of bookcase
Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 35 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use their public Linux stations.

1 Comment

This oversized Toblerone chocolate bar would be great to have in a Trivia Vending Machine. You would need to design a machine specifically for this sized chocolate bar. As I visualize this, the candy bar would come rolling down about five feet from the top of the machine and then make a happy, big thud in the aluminum tub at the bottom of the machine. https://www.amazon.com/Toblerone-Chocolate-Almond-Nougat-Easter/dp/B09H… To get to play a round in the Giant Toblerone Vending Machine, you would first need to earn 15 "coins" from a regular Vending Machine. These coins could be "virtual coins" that are entered into the Giant Toblerone Vending Machine using a QR code, or somesuch.

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