Vending Machine Recommends Drinks Based On Facial Recognition

Not sure what drink to choose? Japanese vending machine can offer suggestions just by looking at you.

A new Japanese canned-drink vending machine uses facial recognition to "recommend" drinks based on the customer's age and gender -- and sales have tripled over regular machines. Photo: Globalite

A Japanese company has rolled out a beverage vending machine that uses facial-recognition software to determine a customer’s age and gender and then recommends specific drinks for that customer based on market research. As a result, sales have tripled over those from regular vending machines.

The machines, developed by JR East Water Business Co, a subsidiary of railway firm JR East Co, use large touch-panel screens with sensors that allow the machine to determine the characteristics of an approaching customer.

The vending machines recommend beverages after physical attributes of customers are picked up by sensors which allow the machines determine age, sex and other attributes, before offering a number of suggestions.

“Recommended” labels will then appear on specific drink products. Suggested products may also change depending on the temperature and time of day.

“If the customer is a man, the machine is likely to recommend a canned coffee drink, since men tend to prefer these. If the customer is in their 50s, though, that recommendation is likely to be green tea,” a company spokeswoman said.

A woman in her 20s will be recommended a tea drink or slightly sweeter product, since market research has shown that they prefer these.

“We thought it would make it a lot more fun for the customers to have this kind of interaction with our machines, that it would improve the whole buying experience,” she added.

"Recommended" labels will then appear on specific drink products. Suggested products may also change depending on the temperature and time of day. Photo: Globalite

The new canned-drink vending machine uses a tiny camera with a nin-sho (“human-feeling”) sensor to process tell-tale information such as wrinkles, skin texture, and facial structure.

“When you look at a person, you are automatically trying to determine the gender and age of that person. The Machine is doing the same thing,” says Omron spokesperson Akiko Bamba in a Japanese interview.

“Even if a woman changes her sex, or has cosmetic surgery, if people think she’s a woman, the machine will also think she’s a woman.”

Bamba says the Machine is correct 75 percent of the time. In a two-hour period on Monday night, young women do follow the Machine’s advice and buy apple tea, while exhausted salarymen on their way home opt for hot coffee, and younger males go for sporty energy drinks such as Red Bull.

Though an elderly man spends 10 minutes figuring out how the machine works, most of the tech-savvy younger consumers enjoy interacting with such an astute non-life form.

“Generally, Japanese have a favorable acceptance of automation in all aspects of society from industrial production to using the toilet, and automation has been a great boon to economic growth over the past 60 years,” said Tim Hornyak, a Canadian expatriate in Tokyo, whose book ‘Loving the Machine’ delves into Japanese attitudes toward robots and cutting-edge technology.

Loving the new canned-drink vending machine, Japanese not worried about Orwellian privacy issues of face-recognition technology. Photo: Globalite

“If this vending machine is going to do a better job than a human, they are more comfortable with it,” he added. Hornyak says many Japanese find it less stressful to deal with a machine than with humans in Japan, where rigid codes of behavior and a complex language can complicate even basic social interactions.

While many Japanese have become concerned about privacy issues after scandals over companies and state agencies leaking personal information, Hornyak says most Japanese are still very comfortable giving out personal details such as their age, birthplace and blood type, if it improves the level of service.

The company has so far tested one machine at one Tokyo train station but plans to add five machines on Tuesday at central Tokyo Station, with the network to be expanded to other major Tokyo stations and nearby suburban areas by early in 2011.

The company’s plans to install about 500 machines around Tokyo over two years will also create jobs for humans, who program the machines with data such as weather forecasts to help it decide whether you want cold drinks on a hot summer morning or hot tea on a cold winter night.

The company also says it has no immediate plans to export the technology overseas, and Tim Hornyak points out that the new machines would have a harder time reading faces in Canada’s or U.S.’s multiethnic society than it does in homogenous Japan. [via Reuters and Globalite]

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