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.

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