Technology meets eating out
Healthy Food in the Forecast
It’s not quite the Jetsons, where George, Jane, Elroy, and Judy simply tell the robotic maid what they’d like to eat, but Lucky Robot Japanese Kitchen is bringing the computer into the dining experience.
Lucky Robot (1303 S. Congress) is a Japanese kitchen where dishes are prepared fresh onsite. Head Chef Jay Huang, formerly of Uchi and the W, has put together an interesting array of dishes, from traditional Japanese sushi and okonomiyaki to “outside the box” creations, such as tuna nachos. Technology comes into play in the iPad found at each table (nope, you won’t confuse ‘em with yours and, yep, they are constantly wiped down between seatings to sterilize the surfaces). While there are paper menus to peruse, the iPad enables diners to sort the menu. Do you need gluten-free foods? What about vegan options? Interested in something on the lighter side—say, under 500 calories? The iPad allows you to create and view your custom menu. It takes the guesswork out of ordering. Owner Adam Weisberg explained, “We envision this as a communication program for our guests. It takes a different tone from the standard menu; you get pictures of the food as well as nutritional and allergy information, all sorted and at your fingertips. It’s very different from what you’ve experienced in the past.”
Utilizing the iPad also allows diners to control ordering as well as how the food reaches the table. While there is staff that is happy to take orders, answer questions, and help with navigating the iPad for first time users, it is possible to handle all the food selection (and paying the bill) without engaging a waiter. It also affords a very different kind of interaction between business and client. Weisberg explained restaurateurs rarely get direct feedback from diners; with the iPad, guests receive an optional survey with the bill that provides a rating scale and area for comments. “Now, we get some 50 pieces of feedback everyday,” he said, and that has provided valuable information: “It’s changed the way we do business.”
This iPad technology is just the tip of the iceberg for combining computers and cuisine. Lucky Robot’s sister eatery, Zen, is in the process of introducing a novel concept. Zen serves Japanese fast food, and diners order deli-style; in the Anderson Lane location, there is now an interactive kiosk. Diners can stop at the kiosk before ordering to view several menu options provided by an array of fitness organizations; right now, there are 13 nutritional partners including Gilbert’s Gazelles, CrossFit, HEAT, Dane’s Body Shop, Jack & Adam’s Bicycles, and Hyde Park Gym. Each organization views the Zen menu’s nutritional information and creates one to three menu options for those who are training with them (or not—these menus are available to anyone waiting to order). For example: Click on Rogue and two menu options come up, “Recommended” and “Proceed with Caution”—there is text with each menu item that explains the whys and wherefores of these recommendations. Hyde Park Gym has a “Bulk Up” and a “Lean Down” menu which focus on calories, while Efficient Exercise takes a more general approach to interpreting the menu based on ingredients. “We didn’t want to limit our partners—the menus are their creations,” explained Weisberg. “Eventually, we’ll also have a page where they can talk about their missions and give more information, but that’s later. It’s always our goal to keep things local, keep it like minded, and we see ourselves as an ‘added value partner’ for these great organizations.”
The Zen kiosk was just installed in the middle of March; in another four to six weeks, people will be able to access the varied menus from their own computers prior to entering the eatery. These innovations will continue to evolve, changing the way diners interact with restaurants and their food and—hopefully—leading toward more pleasant, healthier meal experiences. — Leah Fisher Nyfeler
No More Excuses
Online group gets members outdoors
From hiking to biking to camping to kayaking—there is no shortage of activities to keep an outdoor enthusiast busy in Austin. But what happens when your friends aren't as keen on the great outdoors, or when the demands of their daily lives don't allow them to partake in the fun with you?
Look no further than Hill Country Outdoors (HCO).
More than a meet-up group, HCO is a volunteer-run organization that has connected active Austinites with each other since 2000 via their website (hillcountryoutdoors.com). The set-up is simple: Members pay a fee according to the length of time they wish to participate in the organization (e.g., weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.). The fee allows them to partake in (and, in some cases, receive discounts on) a variety of activities that have been arranged by volunteer group leaders—everything from hikes and backpacking trips to pub crawls and dance lessons. There is no limit to the number of activities members can participate in, and the activities are plentiful.
Jamie Brierton, proprietor of HCO, explained that what makes the group unique is its consistency. “There are a million meet-up groups, but they are more loosely organized,” she said. “Someone can lead a [meet-up] group for a while and grow tired of it; then the group dies. [With HCO], people seem to really value that it's a consistent leader and group of people.”
What also makes the group special, according to Brierton, is its focus on new members who might be hesitant to participate because they are too shy or intimidated to walk into a group of strangers by themselves. Upon request, HCO will assign a “buddy coordinator” (an outgoing volunteer from the group) to meet the newbie ahead of the event and introduce him or her to the others. “You feel more comfortable going with someone you've already met…it's a nice benefit if you're shy or unsure of what you're supposed to be doing,” Brierton said.
Eva Moore joined HCO in 2009. She was new to Austin, and, although she had already made a small group of friends, she was looking to meet more people. Today, Moore is an HCO group leader. “I had done all the events, I knew pretty much everyone; I wanted [the group] to have more leaders that could show [new members] this cool stuff to do,” she said. “I like doing lots of different stuff around Austin, and it’s a pretty wide open calendar—anything from simple happy hours to kayaking and zip lining and camping and just about anything you could think of outdoors.”
What is also great about the group, according to Moore, is that it takes away the hassle of having to organize different events by oneself: “I like being able to go to someone else’s events, to be able to look at the calendar on short notice and [the event is] already planned, they’ve got a spot picked out, a reservation made, etc.”
Although there are a number of single members in the group, Brierton was quick to assert that HCO is not a singles group. All demographics are represented, from the singleton who is new in town, to couples with children who are seeking family outdoor activities, to long-time Austinites who are just looking for something fun to do. The ages of group members range greatly, although the majority are in their thirties.
There are lots of opportunities for people who are interested in HCO to check it out without having to commit at first. The group holds a new member meeting once a month, as well as a public happy hour where prospective members can meet group members and ask questions.
Brierton said that HCO’s biggest struggle is getting word out to the public. “For all the people who know we’re there, there are thousands who don’t. You’d think [the group] would be 99 percent new [to Austin] people, but it’s not. There are a lot [of group members] who have lived here their whole lives.” She recommends that people interested in HCO attend a new member meeting or visit their website to view pictures and videos and to learn more about their events.
Ultimately, HCO seems to do an excellent job of achieving its end goal: connecting active Austinites with each other. “I’ve made a really good group of friends through the club,” said Moore. “If I haven’t seen my friends in a while, I can jump on the calendar and say, ‘Oh, there’s my friend I haven’t seen in a while; I’m going to sign up [for that event].” With no commitments required and an activity for pretty much everyone, there is little to lose and only new friends to be gained. — Courtenay Verret
Minding the Gap
Work progresses on Riverside boardwalk project
Austinites will be walking, running, and biking on water in 2014.
Well, maybe not literally, but they will be closer than they have been before. The Trail Foundation’s (TTF) Riverside Boardwalk Project, which was discussed by a Parks Department employee as early as 20 years ago, is now underway. The boardwalk will close a 1.1-mile gap in the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail. Currently, pedestrians must leave the trail and use Riverside Drive, winding around several office buildings and braving I-35 traffic as they try to finish the loop. Susan Rankin, executive director of TTF, explained the challenge of moving from concept to reality: “TTF had said for years that we would fund the important trail completion project at millions yet one big challenge was developing the public part of the funding. From the time we took this on and completed our foundational Riverside Boardwalk Investment Study in 2007, TTF has conceived this as a public- private partnership.”
In 2010, TTF public funds were secured, and the boardwalk project could finally become a reality. For Rankin and others close to the work, the new trail means a safer connection to East Austin, a way for the community to access health and fitness opportunities, eased congestion on the western trail front, and access to the underutilized waterfronts and parks on the east side.
Aside from the boardwalk’s recreational purposes, the new addition will be an incentive for even more daily commuters who currently use other parts of the trail as an alternative to the drive in for work. The trail will also connect the east side communities of the Riverside area to the downtown area, as well as to the west side of the Austin community.
The boardwalk project in all will call cost around $8 million: The City of Austin invested around $1.9 million in its planning stages, TTF put forward $3 million toward the hard construction cost, and another $3 million in private funding is hoped for in its completion.
Construction started in October 2012 and has now moved from the mainland onto the waterfront. Over 20 piers have been poured east of I-35, and trailhead bridges and access points are underway on the east side as well. Construction is set for completion in late spring, 2014.
The boardwalk will feature textured, integrally colored decks and center markers that will be more aesthetically pleasing than the concrete piers they will rest on. The bridge will separate into five sections: East Riverside, the Skyline segment, the Wooded Corridor, the I-35 section, and the Waterfront Promenade. Connections such as the Blunn Intersection and Harper’s Trailhead will serve as access points from the east side to the trail. Some of the sections will take the path out onto the still waters of the lake and others will navigate through currently wooded areas that have not previously been open to trail runners. Restrooms are also a part of the trail design as is Lake Shore Plaza, an open area located in the wooded area along Lady Bird Lake. For Rankin, the new additions are exciting for more than intrinsic reasons.
“Personally, I am excited that the overwater sections will provide Austinites the opportunity to walk and run on water and give us access to previously inaccessible parklands between I-35 and Blunn Creek,” she said. “There are specimen trees such as wonderful cottonwoods, cypresses, and willows. Along that section, trail users will see water birds as well.”
When the boardwalk is finished, it will serve as more than just a glorified sidewalk. The project is designed to help beautify the area along the sides of the lake as well provide areas for sweeping views of Austin’s skyline. In the future, Austin runners, will have less risk in finishing their trail run and a more relaxing way to take care of those last miles. Rankin gave a succinct summary of the undertaking:
“This unusual project can happen in Austin because the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake is so important to Austinites’ health and fitness, connection to nature, and to the social fabric of our community. The trail is a key factor in why Austin is so fit, informal, outdoorsy, and friendly!” — Madie Leon
ASB Glass Courts
Floors of the future could change indoor sports
For a second, imagine the impact of your feet hitting the gym floor. There’s a little give followed by the distinct feeling of hitting a sometimes-unforgiving floor. Now imagine this same motion with a glass floor.
Welcome to the future of indoor courts. Thanks to ASB, a company based out of Germany, gym floors are getting a glass overhaul. Known throughout Europe for their revolutionary squash court floors made entirely out of glass, the company is once again attempting to revolutionize the sports world. The squash courts boasted portability as well as multifunctionality due to features such as movable walls. ASB even built a court in front of the pyramids. So how does the concept transfer over to gym flooring?
First of all, the courts offer usability. Instead of painted lines, these see-through surfaces are diagrammed using LED lights, which create the lines when lit. The LED lines can also be changed, making a court multifunctional; the same court used for Tuesday night’s basketball game can be put in play for Wednesday’s arena ball, and volleyball players don’t have to compete with an abundance of lines. The use of the LED lights also means lines can be eliminated—a plus for event planners who want to use an athletic space but turn their noses up at gaudy boundary lines.
A reasonable person might question the use of glass as a replacement for wooden courts. In lab tests, the glass actually showed a greater elasticity than wooden floors, which is good news for knees. Infused with ceramic dots to create a safe surface, the glass is set on top of aluminum flooring, adding friction and providing a glare-free court. The company also offers bounce tests to each buyer and proudly demonstrates that ASB’s courts typically show less signs of wear and tear than wooden courts because of their ability to hide scratches. In 2007, the company installed an open-air squash court on a cruise ship, and the flooring is still viable despite what could have been damaging effects from corrosive seawater and ocean air.
On a large scale, the courts may revolutionize the sporting experience. The LED capabilities could mean showing scores throughout halftime as well as flashing advertisements on the court, all without use of a Jumbotron. According to a review by Digital Trends, the court’s LED lights (when combined with sensor technology) could eliminate the need for replays, because the last position of the ball could be tracked visibly.
So, is there a problem, really? Well, for the financially cautious, the court has an as yet unannounced price tag. Considering the three components of the court—LED lighting, double-paned glass, and gigantic sheets of aluminum—a pretty high number can be expected when the pricing finally comes out. In addition, the court is simply something that has not been seen before. An article from design website Core77 concerning the court floors discussed the glass floor’s higher coefficient of restitution (bounciness), pointing out that different reactions may be a temporary problem for athletes used to wooden courts. However, tennis, football, and soccer players (to name but a few sports) have learned to make transitions from playing on natural to artificial surfaces, so the problem is clearly not insurmountable.
However, the courts do present a revolutionary new idea. ASB has pitched their product not only to gyms and arenas but to nightclubs and other music venues as well, where artists could incorporate the floor lights into their shows. Undoubtedly, the widespread reach of the new courts would change the sports world. Will they catch on? We will have to wait and see, but the possibilities seem a little too exciting for the innovation to remain simply a big idea. — Madie Leon
Brave New World of Exercise Equipment
How gym equipment goes from idea to actuality
There’s a brand new piece of fitness equipment at the gym. You eye it warily. It looks interesting but what exactly is it supposed to do? You wait to see if anyone tries it out. When no one does, you have two choices: either brave it alone (which depends largely on the nature of the handy instructions provided) or find help from a trainer, the company’s website, or a class. And sometimes, you find yourself wondering, “Who dreamed up this contraption?”
Today’s fitness stalwarts (the treadmill, Stairmaster, elliptical machine, Bosu ball) were, at one point, brave new concepts posited by an inventor who saw a way to maximize movement for better fitness results. How does that idea get from concept to standard equipment?
Austin-based Surge Performance Training is in the process of introducing their new fitness machine, the Surge 360, to the workout world. Surge is a family business with a long history of fitness innovation; Jerry Brentham, now an industry expert with multiple patents, started out in the late sixties with a company called Hydra-Gym. Brentham invented a hydraulic cylinder system that was eventually used in the machinery that comprised the Curves workout facilities. The company morphed over the years, changing owners and names (you’ll still hear the Powermax and Powermax 360 names in some of the company’s videos), until three years ago, when Brentham and his son Brent teamed back up to modify this technology and create Surge (the senior Brentham is now an advisor). After a conference with an NFL coach, “I saw a real need in the training world for something that worked shoulders on a variety of planes,” explained Brent Brentham. Brentham took his ideas, drew up plans, and headed to the workshop to create Surge 360. “The first time we got on it,” remembered Brentham, “we knew we had something special.”
Surge 360 doesn’t look like other gym machines. The user stands on a mat; at one end are two ski-pole-looking bars with handles at the top that almost appear to be mounted on a tripod. The user grasps the handles and basically pulls the poles this way and that. The force used is what determines the resistance; it’s an omnikinetic (meaning variable speed and resistance) workout. The machine can be used in a variety of different ways; while originally created with the NFL in mind (which readily embraced its use), applications in rotational power sports, such as golf, tennis, and baseball, quickly became apparent. The more Surge 360 was used, the more uses were realized. After receiving some feedback, the machine now has removable handles and punching handles as well as clips where resistance bands can be attached for athletes who are interested in using their knees. These modifications make Surge 360 valuable training equipment for what Brentham refers to as “combat sports,” including mixed martial arts, wrestling (the USA Olympic wrestling team has one), boxing (Andre Ward is a fan), and the UFC (Gilbert Melendez has been using one as part of his shoulder injury rehab). Surge 360 is still improving: “We still need to work on a measurement system,” said CEO Martin Luther. “People want to be able to gauge and record their progress, and right now, there’s isn’t that capability, though of course you could measure the time spent on the machine as well as record the types of movements used.”
Once the machine is perfected, how does it get from novelty to must-have status? Diane Vivies, an international expert on fitness who has advised clients such as HyperWear and Trigger Point Performance, gets four to five requests every week to review up-and-coming products. “Validation is an important part of the process,” Vives explained. “It’s also important to connect and build your network.” In the past, celebrity endorsements were the way to go; now, however, Vives feels that education is the “game changer.” She mentioned that Trigger Point Performance, Bosu, and TRX have done an excellent job of educating trainers and coaches who, in turn, then act as ambassadors who promote the use of these products to their clients. “Companies are grasping the concept of ‘I want a master trainer to teach my class’ as the best way to get their equipment to the fitness consumers,” she explained.
Surge is taking this route. They’ve kept the press coverage low while pursuing hard data to back up their faith in Surge 360 workouts. The team engaged an independent group to perform a clinical study that measured Surge 360 against traditional fitness machine (treadmill, elliptical, etc.) and were pleased to find substantiation for the claim that a Surge 360 workout burned more calories in a shorter amount of time (the study can be read at surgept.com). The team at Surge is working directly with coaches and trainers to utilize a grass-roots education program. Titan Total Training (T3) in Temple owns ten machines and holds regular group fitness classes that reach as many as 700 users. Down the road, Luther sees an accreditation process for fitness professionals. Right now, there are three machines in the Austin area for public use (one in Hyde Park Gym, another in south Austin at The Fit Pit, and the third at Camp Gladiator), all of which are being used in a variety of creative ways. “We learn something new every time we go in and observe,” said Luther.
Over the next 12 months, Surge will continue to perfect the machine and introduce it to users through classes and training. They could even bring out a celebrity endorsement in the form of Robert Downey, Jr., who works out with Surge 360. And who knows—perhaps one day, this fitness innovation will be as commonplace as treadmills in the gym. — Leah Fisher Nyfeler