Pizza and tech: An app creates the perfect combo

Katherine Murray

There’s an app for that! We’re now well into an era of mini-apps — created for smartphones, adopted by Windows8, and now rapidly making their way onto entertainment systems and other digital devices.

In a preview of things to come, a Pizza Hut app lets you order your favorite pie right from your Xbox 360 gaming/entertainment system.

There might not be a better example of how our shopping has evolved in a digital world than the simple act of ordering pizza. Once upon a time, we dialed up the local pizzeria using our house phone (remember land lines?). Today we dial our favorite pizza delivery directly from our cellphone favorites list — right after we consult the menu in our browser.

Now Pizza Hut has taken the ordering process to the next level — an app you download and run on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 system. What could be better after a few hours of gaming or movie watching than to jump over to a simple app, place our order, and get up only when the doorbell rings? This Pizza Hut app might be the first of its kind — it’s also available for smartphones and tablets — but other retailers will soon have dedicated shopping apps of their own. Here’s how Pizza Hut’s works. (But before reading on, I suggest ordering the pizza and beer of your choice; you might get hungry.)

Downloading apps — no keyboard needed

For those unfamiliar with the device, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console attaches to your TV and lets you play games, watch movies, play music, and surf the Web. If you add the Kinect option, you can do all those things with voice commands or gestures. For example, instead of downloading the Pizza Hut app by pecking at a physical or virtual keyboard, you simply say (commandingly): “Xbox. Bing. Pizza Hut.” The Xbox opens a Bing search on an Xbox version of Internet Explorer and then displays the results, as shown in Figure 1. If you want to use gestures instead of your voice to navigate the app, first wave side to side so the Kinect recognizes your motions, and then place and hold your hand (which is represented by a small hand icon on the screen) over the option you want to select.

Figure 1. The Pizza Hut app is available in the Xbox 360 Marketplace.

You start the download process by saying: “Xbox. Pizza Hut.”

Various apps appear on the screen. If you’re using voice commands, you’ll also see labels on each app — for example: Item 1, Item 2, Item 3 — that you can use to tell Xbox 360 which app you want to select. After choosing an app, you select either Play now or Download the app. I downloaded the Pizza Hut app and then chose Pin to Start for quick access. (Pizza is a favorite meal in my family.)

A note about using voice commands: In my house, the Kinect system seems to respond more quickly and accurately when my sons speak than when I do. (Perhaps my commands aren’t commanding enough.) During our first experiment with the Pizza Hut app, we had three different voices commanding the Kinect system. Although I was the one with the debit card, my commands were typically overlooked.

Somewhat like Windows 8, applications live on the Xbox 360 Start screen. You can jump to that screen by saying: “Xbox. Apps.” There you’ll see my apps in a small box in the lower-left corner of the screen. Say, “Xbox. My apps.” to access applications you’ve downloaded — including the Pizza Hut app, in my case (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. After you download the Pizza Hut app, it appears in your My Apps area.

First order is business — then pleasure

The first time you launch the Pizza Hut app, you must enter your name, address, and credit-card information — typically using the Xbox’s clunky onscreen keyboard. On subsequent visits, the Pizza Hut app will remember who you are and even what you’ve ordered in the past. The app saves your credit information securely so you won’t need to type all those digits again. But users should be forewarned that anyone who can use your Xbox sign-in information will be able to order pizzas at will. That could be a liability for parents of always-hungry teens. (I tested it, and there’s no password or security check before the final “Place your order” step.)

The Pizza Hut app includes the usual menu choices such as pizza toppings, chicken wings, breadsticks, and drink. To make selections, say, “Xbox” to display the audio commands; then say or position the hand icon over the items you want (see Figure 3). It’s really that simple. After you’ve selected your pizza toppings (you see images of pepperoni, sausage, and mushrooms as you call out these ingredients), say “Add to order.” The Pizza Hut app moves you along to the finish line, where you can finalize the order and submit it.

Figure 3. You build your pizza by stating your preferences

The first time we used the app, I wondered how well a virtual order would translate into real-world pizza. Would it be late? Would it be cold? I was pleasantly surprised: our pizza arrived 36 minutes after we ordered it, hot and closely resembling the pizza we’d seen on the TV screen.

More practical reality via the virtual world?

Now that your Xbox 360 delivers meals, what other services are in the offing? More sophisticated applications are in development for the next-generation Xbox. Last month, Microsoft held a launch event for Xbox One (more info; see Figure 4), reportedly due out this November (a bit late for the 2013 holiday shopping season). Based on an x86 architecture, Xbox One is incompatible with the PowerPC-based Xbox 360. That means Xbox 360 games won’t run on the new system — unhappy news for the millions of Xbox 360 users who might want to upgrade. Undoubtedly, there are many Xbox One apps already well down the development road.

Figure 4. The new Xbox One, due out in November (Source: Microsoft)

Xbox One will include a dramatically improved Kinect built in. It can track heartbeats, muscular movement, and even your facial expressions — which is already generating discussions about personal privacy, as reported in a June 13 Rolling Stone article. It’ll even know when you’re bored, frustrated, or scared while playing a game.

The new Xbox includes a built-in, 1080p camera that can “see” you more accurately — whether good or bad, your Xbox persona might actually look like you. The system’s facial recognition automatically signs you in to a specific controller. It’s said that the Xbox One/Kinect combination can even track your movements in a completely dark room (for what purpose remains to be seen).

Xbox One’s enhanced Kinect has new voice commands, enabling such real-world tasks as calling others on Skype and ordering movie tickets. You can also open multiple screens, letting you play a game or watch a movie and chat with friends or family at the same time.

Here’s another Kinect possibility: Microsoft will soon come out with Kinect for Windows, adding movement and voice navigation to Windows 7 and Windows 8. This version of Kinect will work at shorter distances; you’d probably feel pretty silly standing six feet away from your PC while you speak your commands.

Some of us will find this a strange new world — one designed to give us everything without our needing to get off the couch. Unless, of course, it’s time to play Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 on our entertainment system. Order a pizza and enjoy!

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Katherine Murray

About Katherine Murray

Katherine Murray is the author of My Windows 8.1 (Que, 2013), Microsoft Office 2013 Plain & Simple (Microsoft Press, 2013), My Evernote (Que, 2012), and other non-fiction books on business, parenting, and Earth-care topics. She also coauthored, with Woody Leonhard, Green Home Computing for Dummies (Wiley 2009), and she writes and tweets (@kmurray230) about green-tech, wellness, and other social issues.