South Charlotte

Interactive tabletops bring people together

It's an all-too-common sight these days: People sitting together at a restaurant table who might as well be alone.

Their heads are down, eyes peering at their smartphones as they text or check email.

Former UNC Charlotte-professor-turned-businessman Michael Feldman already had long thought about how personal touch screens, such as iPhones and now iPads, don't promote interaction with others.

"In 2006, I was looking where things were going, and it occurred to us that there was this (touch-screen) revolution that was changing people's lives," he said. "But it was all so individualized, and it seemed so isolating.

"Where's the connection with people?"

The answer? You can find it a several restaurants in South Charlotte - if you can get a seat there.

In 2011, Feldman's T1Visions, a 15-employee company in Cornelius, introduced its Social Connect Touchscreen tables in The Cowfish, a popular sushi-burger restaurant in SouthPark. In January, the new Mellow Mushroom pizza restaurant in Ballantyne installed several touch screens.

The computer screens are built into the tabletops or bar tops, allowing customers to play games, watch music videos and movie trailers, read news online and send orders to the kitchen.

The tables allow people to interact better by letting them share and manipulate the content from their phones and the tabletop screens, which encourages conversation. And in some cases, everyone at the table views the same screen.

Business success

Feldman left his job as an electrical engineering professor at UNC Charlotte in 1996 to work full-time at Digital Optics, a micro-optics company he founded. He sold the company in 2006 to Tessera Technologies for almost $60 million.

He stayed on at Digital Optics for about a year and then retired, for about a month.

He already was talking with friends and family about new ideas, specifically an interactive computer screen that could be installed in restaurants. It would facilitate conversation and interaction, rather than inhibit it.

He co-founded T1Visions with Jim Morris in 2007. Employees developed and tested the software, and they worked with furniture companies to design tables for their screens. They opened T1 Tapas restaurant in Birkdale Village in Huntersville as a test lab for the tables.

They watched and made changes based on customers' comments and questions. The screens survived real-life situations, such as babies sitting on them and drinks being spilled.

After 1 1/2 years of development and testing, the screens were ready for sale. They developed specialized features, such as a screen that divides into two or four screens, to accommodate everyone at the table.

Another feature, called "air connect," allows customers to send photos and information from their smart phones to the screen. Some tables have an additional screen on the wall, where customers can send information such as family photos for the whole table to view.

The touch screens, which range from $5,000 to $15,000, are in six venues; most in the Charlotte area and one in a restaurant in Jamaica co-owned by track and field star Usain Bolt.

The screens in restaurants have proven especially popular with children, who are used to the technology. T1Visions Director of Operations Loré Hunsicker points out a hit YouTube video where a baby tries to "click" on a magazine with her finger, thinking it would work like an iPad.

"Kids will have ordered a drink and be playing a video game (on the tables) before their parents have their coats off," Hunsicker said.

A popular feature in The Cowfish's screens allows customers to customize an animated fish. With a swish of their finger across the screen, they can send their fish into a large virtual aquarium behind the bar, where it swims with other customers' fish.

Business people also enjoy reading online newspaper on the bar screens at lunch, and at Mellow Mushroom, restaurant-goers can play games together on the screen while waiting for their food, which they also can order on the screen.

The computer screens are sealed, so they can withstand overturned drinks, hot plates and other potential hazards.

"We have not had to replace a screen at our restaurant," Hunsicker said.

Getting attention

While Feldman says he prefers to initially release the products slowly so he can work with companies to iron out kinks and improve features, the touch screens are getting national publicity.

A writer from Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine visited The Cowfish in 2011 and named it a notable family-friendly restaurant - because of the interactive tables. In mid-2011, New York Times columnist John T. Edge tweeted that he was at The Cowfish reading the newspaper on a touch screen.

Meanwhile, T1Visions is expanding its products. Later this month, several educational touch-screen tables are scheduled to be installed in UNC Charlotte's Atkins Library. Students can plug in laptops or flash drives and share information on the screen.

Webber Dentistry in SouthPark has installed a split-screen table in the waiting room. Health-care providers are interested in the tables because patients enjoy them, and they can improve staff efficiency, as patients also can enter information into the tabletop computer.

"I would say overall, it just improves (customers' and patients') experience," said Marco Ventura, T1Visions vice president of sales and marketing. "It increases interaction between people."