2012.14 | Technology and Timing

It’s fascinating to me that ideas that are becoming reality now are those that would never even have been considered even a few years ago.  The increasing comfort of the general public with mobile computing and touchscreens as well as increasing reliability, and decreasing costs are removing barriers at an increasing rate of speed.   Consider a few examples.

Scan and Ship – Looks like the HomePlus experiment of scanning virtual shelves to populate a shopping cart on the mobile has started a bit of a trend.  Well.ca did the same thing in Canada, Giant in the US and others have been giving it a try as well.  It’s a simple extension of current technology and has a low barrier to entry, so why not?  Smart phones are increasingly common, there is some novelty to it, and most everyone is now comfortable with online purchases.  Sounds obvious, but this wasn’t always the case.

Phone Booth 2.0 – It seems NYC is experimenting with touchscreen kiosks in former phone booths.  Once again, why not?  It’s a good use of current space.  The phone booths provide some infrastructure needed for a kiosk or digital signage implementation – a metal frame with some weatherproofing, connectivity and proximity to a large base of potential users and viewers.  The offering is at no cost to the city, and presumably would be paid for by advertisements and chargeable services.


Biometric ATMsNCR offered iris scan solutions some years ago but it never caught on; ahead of its time perhaps.  A Japanese bank is experimenting with ATMs that use palm readers to identify users.   In the past, I would have a lot of questions on the potential value and concerns around privacy.

Customers today are increasingly interested lightening their wallet and not having to remember to carry a card.  Millennials are more confident with technology and are willing to try something for the fun factor.  Corporations are always interested in providing the appearance of being forward thinking and tech savvy.  The Japanese are used to using a mobile to interface with an ATM, so perhaps this is a natural progression.

Wayfinding – It’s easy to forget a time we didn’t have google maps and cheap and easy to use GPS units, as they have become so embedded in our lives.  Taking that ease of direction into buildings – like malls or stores has ever been the elusive last mile.  Wayfinding projects in store are challenging because of the constantly shifting nature of retail.  As displays and stores are constantly rearranged, even if someone sets up a kiosk to find items in the store, it is either wrong, or requires constant updating – a challenging effort that rarely seems to reward the work required.  Perhaps the first step towards crossing this mile comes is a tool from Google.  Google is offering Google Maps Floor Plans to start to map out the indoors.  While it doesn’t get products in place, it does begin to provide some help in larger venues.

I’d like to think that at some point Electronic Shelf Label could have a unique id on them that could be shared with a mobile device that would allow the user to find an item based on the location of the ESL.

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2010.43 | Gold ATM

Given the frenzy around investing in gold over past months, it isn’t surprising that some enterprising individuals are now offering the opportunity to purchase gold from a vending machine.  A german company is offering a franchise program where vending machines that dispense gold are placed in what one must assume are secure shopping areas.

This is just one example of how self service and vending are moving to all facets of society, including the most affluent.

2010.35 | Self Service User Experience

I visited the Henry Ford Museum this weekend, and can’t recommend it enough.  The museum provides an incredible view into the progression of technology from the industrial revolution to the near present.    The museum houses an incredible collection of cars, bicycles, trains and more.   If you haven’t been, you need to go. 

Some of the most interesting displays to me were those pertaining to retail.  They have an entire 1940s diner called Lamy’s – including an NCR cash register and vending machine, a full neon sign from McDonalds from the 1960s, and even a complete hotel room from an iconic Holiday Inn from the 1970s.  Studying history does a great job of reminding us of our roots, and for providing context for the present, and visiting this museum certainly did that for me.   While on one hand, it reminded me that we have come very far, it also indicated that we may have lost some very engaging and exciting elements of self service solutions and the retail experience.

What brought the experience component to my mind was the Mold-A-Rama machine I encountered near the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile on display.  This retro vending machine made a plastic molded toy of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile before my eyes in about 1 minute.  It was a delight to watch!  It had sixties styling, impressive looking gauges, and a bubbled window to display the inner workings as the machine made the toy by injecting plastic in a mold.  You could even watch the toy pushed by a little metal rod as it fell into the little drawer for pickup.   The toy is delivered still warm into your hands for the low price of 2 $1 bills fed into the machine. 

There was also a cigarette vending machine in Lamy’s Diner (See the National logo at the bottom in the image) that had awesome styling and great kinetic feedback.  Having a mechanical handle directly under the item of choice that you pull gives the experience a tactile and direct feedback that involves the user more than a touchscreen of items or a button that feeds to a circuit into a magic box.  It was a throwback to my youth and the mechanical experience of the gumball machine and the pay telephone.

I was reminded of how commonplace the transactions via self service have become over the years.  Since self-service has become so ingrained in our society, we have become so accustomed to these machines that they have become invisible.  This invisibility is certainly a missed opportunity to connect with our collective customers and bring them a new and pleasurable experience instead of a chore. 

Today’s consumer is certainly more sophisticated than the targeted customers of these machines, and life is more complex (age verification on the cigarette machine, anyone?), but there is still an opportunity to build on today’s self service experience. 

As of late, I am aware that numerous vendors and retailers alike are working on ways to engage our collective customers while providing them the speed of transaction and ease of use that they have come to expect.   One great example I recently highlighted is a vending machine in Japan that utlizes a large screen on their vending machine that replicates the look and feel of an older model machine with product behind the window.

Another excellent example is a new ATM design made through a partnership of organizations, including my employer NCR.   Have a look at the video and watch the animation on the screen of the ATM before the cash is dispensed.  For some reason this small change to the interface puts a little thrill into the transaction that our human nature cannot resist.

Engaging our customers is always the right thing to do.  We always need to be learning, and new ideas come from surprising places.  Let’s hope we can learn from the past to make tomorrow’s self service not only a useful experience, but a pleasurable and exciting one as well.

2009.32 | Hacking Hackers

Hackers certainly keep life interesting with society’s increasing reliance on technology. One of the favourite activities of the hacker crowd is to find a security vulnerability of a particular solution, and showcase it to the world to prove their expertise.

Quite a cynical and negative lot, aren’t they? These can be frustrating situations for organizations who expend time and resources to build solutions to provide value to customers. The fact of the matter is that there is always going to be a way to break into something no matter how big a wall is built around it.

Apple recently fell victim to this scenario at the Black Hat conference where researchers (probably not hackers) revealed a security issue and had to quickly supply a security fix for the iPhone. An ATM company had the same issue back in June where a security issue was to be revealed at a conference by a hacker type. RFID enabled US passports have been under fire for being readable by unauthorized types. Even parking meters are getting hacked for free parking.

Is nothing sacred? In a bit of comedic justice, it seems someone (probably hackers) placed a fake ATM on the floor of a hacker conference where many of these great ideas are discussed. No word on whether anyone’s card number was stolen.

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