Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Beyond Earth Day: Saving the Planet with Technology AND Nature

Earth Day has come and gone, but for the first time since the event originated 39 years ago, the general public, corporations, and governments are returning to the green message in a serious way, translating environmental concerns into everyday practices and using the economic crisis as a way to make conservation practical and sexy again.

Kiosks are one great place to see this happening:

Recycling "reverse vending" machines have been around since the mid 1980s, but usage is going way up and corporations are starting to consider the possibilities for advertising and point-of-sale promotions. Tomra, one of the larger manufacturers of recycling vending machines, has begun including videos (on built-in screens), coupons, and poster advertising on its recyclable sorting machines that are usually near supermarkets, sports stadiums, and college campuses. These kiosks are becoming more and more ubiquitous (indeed, perhaps eventually replacing the corner mailbox as the iconic neighborhood item?) and advertisers are realizing that consumers are willing to spend more time in stores and at the vending machines if they have an interactive activity while they're sorting the empty soda and beer cans.
Tomra’s RVMs provide an excellent opportunity for advertisers to associate themselves with a positive activity such as recycling, while at the same time increasing exposure for their products or services,” said Warren Stoll, Vice President Sales & Marketing, Tomra of North America. “This new program will increase store traffic and customer loyalty, contributing to a much-needed economic boost to stores throughout the country.”
Tomra claims that it collects more than 30 billion used beverage containers through its recycling machines, which is equivalent to approximately 3% of the world’s consumption. It also accounts for almost half the global revenue from recycling. Pretty impressive for something that could just be mistaken as a trash bin.

While amping up the kiosks with advertising and video is a great idea, let's hope that Tomra and its ilk continue to think broadly about applications. Rather than the ubiquitous (and often ugly) plastic recycling buckets in many locations, kiosks can be integrated into workplaces, parks, and municipal buildings, where self-service makes recycling easier. Aesthetically, they can enhance a space, offering bins with art all around the outside, such as this one designed by artist Russell Lord.

Environmental dimensions of kiosk development are not always visible: Steve Arel suggests that there are more ways that kiosks can develop a "green" technological face, such as using less metal and foam, recycling retired kiosks, using standby mode technology to reduce power use in idle times, and developing interactive modes that reduce paper use (emailing receipts, for example).

This would also work for kiosks that are associated with recycling smaller items -- such as batteries, cell phones, CDs/DVDs and printer cartridges. These kiosks are often in supermarkets, drug stores, and most often, electronics stores. While these are prime locations for in-store promotions, coupon offers, and product advertisements, it's often more effective to give each kiosk one overall message and design, drawing consumer attention to it as its own object. Marketing often tends to look at new sites as space to be filled, plastering every free inch rather than going for a single overarching pitch in one spot. If recycling kiosks are overburdened with too many disparate -- and unrelated -- product images, they will become part of the backdrop of endless advertisements.

Not all green initiatives need to be plastered right onto the kiosk itself: While Nokia Cell phone recycling kiosks in Indonesia have been very successful at generating green practices through the kiosks, they find that consumers still need to be educated about why this is a good idea. According to a Nokia spokesperson, "One of the main reasons why so few people recycle their mobile phones is because they simply don't know that it is possible to do so... up to 80 percent of any Nokia device is recyclable. Materials such as cobalt, nickel, copper, iron, aluminum, plastics, and even gold can be recovered. It can be reused to help make new products such as steel and other metal products, plastic cones, and in the case of precious metals like gold, into jewelry."

Promoting itself as a "green" company is one way to get consumers to think about the environmental aspects of their cell phones. Although it's not mentioned on the kiosk, one integral part of Nokia's recycling efforts is a program to donate a tree for every phone recycled. Sponsored by NEWtrees Initiative (a collaboration between Nokia, Equinox Publishing, and WWF Indonesia), Nokia has already pledged to plant 100,000 trees in Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. The aim is to help reduce the annual haze that affects the region, and contribute to protecting and preserving the park.

As with all green initiatives, there's a healthy mixture of corporate responsibility and self promotion in creating technology and advertising that helps preserve the environment. Given the central role of recycling and education in so many kiosk applications, it's good for companies to keep their eyes on eco-conscious approaches in all aspects of the industry.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Virtual Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who's the Best Looking Kiosk in the Store?

When my daughters were little, they were already savvy computer users and cultural critics who were generally unimpressed with the Barbie website – except for one feature: you could design your own Barbie, complete with hair color, style, and clothing. They didn’t actually want one, but the ability to “try on” hair and makeup and styles online was compelling. In fact, when they were old enough to “graduate” to Sims, it always seemed like this was what they were doing – creating characters and adjusting their styles -- rather than setting the Sims up in a storyline.

In February, IBM introduced their latest approach to kiosks, which is, quite literally taking that old Barbie format off the home computer and re-vamping it to the in-store virtual shopping experience. Their new “Virtual Mirror” kiosk works from a digitally scanned photo and allows customers to select a variety of products – from hair coloring to makeup – and see how they would look on a virtual version of yourself.

H&M already has a version of this – a not-so-far-from-Sims-like Virtual Dressing room where you can check out how an outfit would look on a computerized image – with your face. The IBM version involves directed selling, though, suggesting more or similar products after the customer scans in barcodes of makeup and hair coloring that interests them. After a customer makes some choices, the image and results can be printed or emailed.

Virtual makeovers are nothing new, but the act of combining them with point-of-sale tailored encouragements to buy selected products is an intriguing – and potentially powerful – way of using the kiosk for greater customer segmentation. The EZface Virtual Mirror Application is the first generation of these products that has already debuted worldwide.

I think it’s worth considering this as an application that might be more effectively tailored as time goes on. It’s ironic that a kiosk designed to help women with makeovers is actually pretty unattractive – sure enough, this looks like an old IBM computer that went on a flat screen diet but is still wearing its yellow power tie from the 1980s. The interface is easy to use, but it doesn’t attract attention any more than those self-scanners at the ends of the aisle in Target.

Compare this to the prototype that Intel and Frog Design unveiled at a recent trade show – It was profiled in the New York Times, most likely since Frog is known for its innovative thinking about technology and machines beyond the box. Frog re-thinks the whole shape and functionality of the cash register, moving it closer to the online experience people have shopping at home. This version has two vertical screens that function as kiosk – the design is slick and engaging, a futuristic pinball machine shape. Smarter than your average cash register, it can pull up a customer’s purchase history with a flash of a store loyalty card. With that knowledge in hand, the kiosk can make point-of-sale suggestions and related products. According to Wired, “The goal is to combine the marketable social possibilities of shopping in the real world with the Web’s ability to up-sell.” To sweeten the deal, Intel has made it clear that the new smart registers are environmentally sound, using less wattage than its regular counterpart by incorporating energy-saving LCD screens and processors as well as a “sleep” mode when the salesperson is not around.

The point is that new kiosk technology has to do something better than what it replaces – and while the advantages of kiosks for point-of-sale marketing are pretty apparent, it’s important to keep in mind that design is not a by-product, but rather part of what makes some new technologies more engaging.