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Sunday, March 20, 2005
Can machines can care
By YOKO HANI
Whether selling Scarab beetles for kids or punctuating the path up Mount Fuji, vending machines are one of Japan's most idiosyncratic features. Although some question the "waste" of energy involved in the ubiquitous mechanized retail outlets -- about 2.6 million alone are hawking beverages -- their onward march and multiplication seems to know no bounds.
Competition for customers in search of instant retail gratification has prompted one operator to add an element of interaction to the previously silent transaction by introducing talking machines with computer-generated "voices" intended to lure customers back in the same way a friendly chat at a mom and pop shop used to do.
"Vending machines are machines, of course. But if they speak to you, you may feel closer to them than to mute ones," said Yoshinori Kobayashi, a marketing section staffer of Dydo Drinco Inc., the nation's third-largest drink-vending machine operator, which has been developing "talkies" for the last few years.
Coffee-break friends Perhaps. For some people, the machines may become coffee-break friends, warmly inquiring "Hello, how are you?" when you pop in your money, then wishing you "Have a good day!" before you move on.
Dydo's talking machines are programmed with several different phrases, including: "Good morning," "Hang in there," "See you tomorrow," "You look good today, again" and "Long time no see. How have you been?" Which phrase it uses is determined by both the time of day and the customer's frequency of "meeting" if it recognizes them through the use of a points card. For 2005, Dydo has also introduced seasonal greetings such as "Happy New Year" and "Merry Christmas."
For the last few years, many people around the country have been catered to by Dydo in reassuring tones of their own.
"Since we introduced Kansai-ben (Kansai-dialect) talking vending machines a couple of years ago, they have become enormously popular in Osaka and around Kansai. I think that is because people there are very attached to their own version of Japanese," Kobayashi said.
"For this year's newest model, we have developed machines speaking in Chinese, English and Portuguese to be sited where many foreign customers may use them, such as in airports."
With 52,000 speaking machines already positioned around the country courtesy of Dydo alone, if you haven't already then it probably won't be long before you'll find a routine purchase comes complete with language exchange. That, certainly, was the (slight) surprise in the mechanical store for 29-year-old office worker Makoto Sato when he went to buy a coffee near JR Shimbashi Station in Tokyo last week.
"Nowadays, ATMs speak to us to explain what to do, and we're all used to cell phones telling us we missed a call or have a message waiting, so I was not so surprised to hear the voice of a vending machine," Sato said.
"But it would be funny to meet a Kansai-ben vending machine, to hear it say something like 'sono shohin wa kirashitemasu nen (that drink is sold out)' -- even if I was in Kansai."
That, though, may be just the tip of the "talkie" iceberg, as Kobayashi of Dydo Drinco said that his company has already developed a machine speaking in manzai (comedy-duo) style to make customers smile. For sure, it may not be long before vending machines may be competing for your custom by singing popular songs like "Matsuken Samba 2" to cheer you up as you struggle to put coins in the slot one gray workaday morning after the night before.