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High-Tech Chocolate: Reinventing the Path from Pod to Palate

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What happens when high-tech chocolate company meets high-tech research lab? TCHO of San Francisco is a new kind of chocolate company, combining innovative methods and a sense of social mission with a commitment to creating obsessively good dark chocolate. Founded by a Space Shuttle technologist and a grizzled chocolate industry veteran, TCHO’s aim is to create a direct, transparent connection between farmers and consumers, illuminating – and sometimes reinventing – the chocolate production process at every step to the benefit of everyone concerned.

Since 2007, TCHO has been working with FX Palo Alto Laboratory (FXPAL), a high-tech research lab in Silicon Valley, to apply emerging technologies in clarifying end-to-end chocolate production processes. The two companies see this collaboration as a way to innovate in bringing people closer to the products they consume. TCHO, already well-versed in high-tech applications for their factory, immediately saw where FXPAL’s expertise in smart environments and computer vision could sync with TCHO’s own technologies. Together the two companies are experimenting with new technologies for fine-grained monitoring, mobile process control, and real/virtual collaborations based on real users and real-world problems in manufacturing industries. In the process, we are finding new applications for existing technologies, as well as insight into real-world needs in globally distributed systems.

For example, inside the newly developed TCHO Factory virtual environment, you can click on a machine to see its status, or move closer to it to trigger an in-world video overview of its function. You can track what’s happening to the chocolate as it moves from machine to machine. The virtual environment will import real-time data from hundreds of sensors on the factory floor, and will be capable of tracking processes in detail over extended periods of time – and playing them back upon request. This allows us to create multi-user collaborative spaces for tasks like factory observation, virtual inspections, customer visits, education/training of employees, process monitoring, and inventory tracking. Different users can see different aspects of the data; for instance, we are designing ways for customers to track their own product from point of origin to finished product.

Meanwhile, an experimental iPhone app provides mobile laboratory monitoring. In the TCHO lab, where intricate processes are developed to bring out the best in each bean, accurate tracking of time and temperature are essential. One of the first physical/digital applications we collaborated on was an iPhone application to allow TCHO a real-time view into their lab (via PTZ or Pan-Tilt-Zoom steerable camera) and to import sensor data as well. Not only does the iPhone app provide greater accuracy and transparency for the people operating the TCHO Lab, it runs via a database that allows accurate tracking over months of the myriad combinations of cacao bean selection and treatment.

For a process as complex as making great chocolate, this kind of clarity and accuracy is vital. Through this collaboration, both TCHO and FXPAL are finding rich opportunities for extending their understanding of ways to use new technologies to map complex, real world processes.

Timothy Childs


Timothy Childs is a successful chocolate entrepreneur, with previous experience co-founding and launching Cabaret Chocolates, an early pioneer of single-origin chocolate with distribution through Whole Foods and other national outlets. Prior to his initiation in the chocolate industry, he worked on machine vision with NASA’s Space Shuttle program, and launched several early-stage companies in the internet and computer graphics industries. Timothy has a deep background in community building, and was a cofounder of both VeRGe and Web3D RoundUP. Timothy’s other obsessions are paragliding and video timelapse projects.

Maribeth Back

FX Palo Alto Laboratory

Maribeth Back is a senior research scientist at FX Palo Palo Laboratory. Her current research focuses on the intersection of virtual environments and real-world collaboration, with a bit of ubiquitous computing mixed in. She leads the Mixed and Immersive Realities group at FXPAL, looking at how the interplay of virtual environments with mobile systems and sensor-fusion networks can be useful in enterprise settings. Previously, Maribeth’s research included smart environments (real and virtual), multi-modal interface design, ubiquitous computing, new forms of reading and writing, and interactive audio systems design and engineering. Maribeth holds a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Computational Design.

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