The process of building the automated candy dispenser was a roller coaster and definitely an example of the Pareto principle, where 20% of the details took 80% of the time.
I learned a lot through the experience and hope to have made a lot of kids happy. On the technical side, I learned about Arduino boards, basic programming, libraries, shields, and their IoT Cloud and Web Editor. I also learned about some of the capabilities and limitations of Alexa Routines and Skills. On the non-technical side, I learned that it's important to know what you're good at and not to be afraid to ask for help for other things (the software, electronics, and programming took me a few hours, but all the mechanical/building/cutting/drilling was a lot more tricky and new for me so I needed to ask for help from family with all that); I also learned that duct tape can do a lot but not everything, and if something doesn't work with duct tape to try a better (ideally mechanical) method.
Below you can read about the engineering process I went through, some of the design decisions, review of prior art, and areas for future work that I identified.
In this post, i'll describe the user experience of the automated Halloween candy dispenser we built and some of the results. In the next post, I'll discuss the prior art of automated candy dispensers and our engineering process.
We built our dispenser as a response to COVID-19, trying to find a way to keep the spirit of Halloween alive but in a safe way. I wanted a way to be able to still give out some new, wrapped candy but have it be totally contact free. I also wanted a way to minimize crowds and gatherings.
Our solution was to build an automated dispensing mechanism that was basically a large pipe which was like a magazine/reservoir/hopper of candy that was aimed into a long chute. Between the pipe and the chute was a door which was opened and closed by a motor. The motor was connected to an Arduino, which is a microcontroller connected to the Internet and activated via an Alexa Routine that I programmed. It took about 2 months of work to build and program the entire thing, going through a couple iterations (most of the work was concentrated in the last 2 weeks before Halloween).
We told our close friends and neighbors about the candy dispenser and asked them to come try it out; this was done kind of "by appointment only" to limit the size of groups and keep things as safe as possible.
Through the course of the night, we ended up serving approximately 50 portions of candy. Everyone who visited seemed pretty happy; you can find read some of their quotes and see some of their reactions below. I've also included a video showing the full experience from the user's point of view.
What can be better than candy? Automated candy!
We normally get lots of kids trick or treating on our street. It's usually lots of fun to give out candy and see all the costumes. One year, we even ran out of candy (rookie mistake) and had to run to a nearby grocery store to get more last minute.
Sometime over the summer after COVID started, I realized that Halloween wouldn't be the same this year, and that was even before trick or treating was banned by the city and CDC. But I didn't want to totally kill all the fun of Halloween. So I came up with the crazy idea of building an automated candy dispenser. Even if it didn't work, it would be an opportunity for me to learn about Arduino and Alexa, a couple technologies I was interested in.
Apparently several other people had a similar idea and built their own contraptions all over the country.
Some people have asked to go through my engineering process and design, so I'll do a series of blog posts about that so others can learn. I certainly benefitted from the "prior art" out there and hope this can benefit future candy dispenser designers.
Below is a little promo video I shot. I made it to serve as a little "invitation" to our friends and neighbors, and it was really just an excuse for me to practice flying my drone and editing some video. In future blog posts, I'll go through the results of how Halloween went, some of the prior art, my overall design process, and potential areas of future work.
I couldn't have done this without the help of my father-in-law who spent many hours helping me to construct the mechanical assembly, so I owe him a huge thanks. And I also owe thanks to the rest of my family for their supporting me to work on such a silly idea.