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Cheap and easy way to send alpha-numeric messages to pc? Answered


Ok.  This is driving me crazy!!!  I've been on the computer now for 7 hours straight, going deeper and deeper into a problem that on the surface really shouldn't be that difficult.  I think I'm pretty close to losing my mind...

So here's my issue.  I work in a busy restaurant (everyday we serve over 700+ people in 5 a hour timespan!) and I've developed a program in .net that automatically seats guests.  The software takes care of groups of diners, equally sharing guests amongst  servers, seating best tables first and so on etc etc.  Any way, all the software user has to do is take the guest's room number and name, the code does the rest.

Here's my issue.  When the restaurant fills up, a queue quickly forms.  The only way for me to find tables that are open and ready to be seated again is to walk around the restaurant and do an update.   I have to do this every 10 minutes which is very inefficient and time consuming. This creates chaos as the hosts are running around and being told to do different things by different people. The hosts are flipping tables when they should be hosting tables, and vice-versa, they are coming up to the front to walk a guest in when we have no open tables  I came up with the idea of having the floor supervisor send a message wirelessly over the network using an old winmo phone - she simply types in the table number, clicks send and then the table is marked open in the program at the front of the restaurant.  

This solution is the best I could come up with but it's not perfect.  In an ideal world, each server would have a way of telling me which table is open the second it is ready.  It would be too costly for everyone to have a phone plus it would look inappropriate to the guests.  The crappy software we use on the computers on the floor is closed and can't be altered.  I need a cheap and easy way for the servers to be able to send a message to the computer at the front of the restaurant.

And this has lead me on my merry dance around the internet - going from ardurino to bluetooth.  From z-wave to usb dongles.  There just doesn't seem to be a system out there that fits my problem.  The  closest I got to a solution is using 433mhz keyfobs which cost about 5 dollars each from china (the same ones used in home automation to open doors and switch on plug sockets).  When a table is free, the server punches the table number on the key fob and the software updates itself.  This lead me into the murky world of 433MHz - it seems incredibly complicated and difficult to do with protocols and drivers and everything else. Has anybody done anything similar to this?

Another solution I came up with is having a button on each table.  Again, when the table is free, the server presses the button and the table becomes free in the software at the front.  Is there something like this on the market?

Another idea would be to have wireless web cams around the restaurant so I would be able to see when a table is free.  This is a great solution except it isn't fully automated and, again I don't think management would like the idea of cameras all around the place.

Can anybody point me in the right direction?  Has anyone faced a similar problem and if so, what did you do to improve things?

If you got this far in the message, thanks for reading this rambling nonsense but I really am at my wits end!!

Thanks again,


ok guys, I've finally found what I'm looking for - only problem is the cost, £1,200 or about $2400!!!!

They are what's called "Student Response Systems" and they do exactly what I want....shame about the price, now all I have to do is build something like it.

Here's the web site just in case anybody is interested http://www.turningtechnologies.com/audienceresponseproducts/responsecardsdk/

Some portable phones (we call them DECT phones in the UK) could be used as cheap terminals. Your servers could dial an internal "extension", and then use the pad to dial up the table number. You'd need to be pretty nifty to do the phone comms at the other end.

I see no reason why an Asterisk Server couldn't handle this - it has an awesome API and I'm sure there will be some .NET libraries out there (or at least mono-framework ones).


Thanks for the help and replies, I seriously am at a complete dead end...

Steve - I looked into dect phones after your message. They seem cheap enough but I can't find enough info about them linking up with a pc. Linking phones and things is a little out of my league.

With the arduino and a board. The restaurant is too big and too busy to have anything hard-wired which is why I'm looking into wireless options. We have 68 tables in the restaurant so it has to be cheap - the 433mhz things seem ideal but very complex to set up. If I did go the way of giving each server a device to let me know the table was open it would have to be cheap ($20 per table max)

I just find it bizarre that something as simple as sending a alphanumeric message to a computer should be so difficult, I can't believe that there isn't another industry out there that needs something similar.

Unfortunately there isn't enough room on the floor to install a touch screen pc - this would definitely be my preferred option but all the space is filled with MICROS machines. And the software is closed and crap. I could install a PC in the back space of the restaurant, the only problem with this is that it takes the same length of time to walk to the back space as it does to walk up to the front and just tell me which table is open lol..

Thanks for all the help guys....I'm sure I'll crack it somehow...

You want to have the staff (who are walking the floor) giving you this information. Not-seated doesn't always equate to ready.
Have a board or something similar and make your servers use it.


L. has a great idea (and Avatar)

Have a board, laid out like the tables, put a switch and LED in each table, and have a push to make/push to break switch. One push turns the LED green - free table, one push turns it off - not free.

Use a double pole switch, one side for the LED, the other to interface to your computer.

The wiring is trickier and will involve an arduino.....If you're happy to do that, I'll give you some more details.

You wrote: "Another solution I came up with is having a button on each table. Again, when the table is free, the server presses the button and the table becomes free in the software at the front. Is there something like this on the market? "

If the restaurant has but is not using the numbered system for "orders", maybe that could be adapted and with a little rewiring, have it indicate open tables in an analog kind of way :-)