Guus is a partner at Raft, a design consultancy in Amsterdam and a podcast host for Let's fix things.


Can machines be friendly? - Friendly Vending

People are surrounded by machines that are designed to help them. Interaction with these machines is often hard to understand, and not social in its nature. Vending machines are a clear example of people adapting to a machine, instead of the other way around. Friendly vending is a  'socially aware soda vending machine, focused on user satisfaction through beauty of interaction’.

Friendliness or Politeness is a human trait. Machines aren't often described as being 'friendly', rather 'easy to use' or 'intuitive'. To imbue these properties of friendliness onto something that is not alive, we have to see what it means for something to be perceived as such. Through a set of experiments a set of requirements was defined for a machine to be perceived as alive, these are:

1. Reciprocal perception

The first and most important sign of life is that of reciprocal perception. When a user approaches a device, the device should show that it is aware of the user, and is ready to interact. For instance a part of the machine can move to orient itself towards the user.

2. Pre-interaction
Interaction with a machine does not have to start only when it's the users intention. By having a machine react to the users presence, it can show which parts are interactive, and how they work. Interactive parts of the machine can light up and movable parts can move to show the user where to start.

3. Physical motion
Machines for the most part move uniformly, in nature however nothing does the same. The reasons for this are mainly in physics: mass takes time to accelerate, and heavy accelerations are stressful on the structure of the moving body. To create a more natural motion in a product, these factors have to be taken into account, to create a more fluent motion. Disneys 12 principles of animation are a good place to start if you are interested in knowing more about this topic.

4. Randomness
For people it is near impossible to do something twice in exactly the same way, so why should a device do that? By adding some randomness to the machines actions, it will seem more lifelike. An easy way of doing this, is to use the users motion or other input as a randomiser for deciding the output. In the case of the machine, the soda cans move to face the user. Much like puppies would do when someone friendly approaches.

Friendly vending combines these principles into a Vending Machine that uses motion to sell its product. As the user approaches the machine, the soda cans themselves move to follow the users location in space. When the user moves closer, the machine moves to acknowledge this. Selecting a product is done by just pointing at it, which moves the product up, the not selected products quickly moving to show their disappointment.

Paying is done by inserting money below the product of your choice. No looking at codes and entering them into a keypad, just pick by pointing. After paying, the machine opens up so the user can grab the product that he selected.

If you're interested in the process, you can see more videos on my project blog from 2009

Guus Baggermans