When Paul Met Erica.
Although it wasn’t the sunshine and cherry blossom of a beautiful spring day in Tokyo that convinced me to go there and back in 48 hours it certainly added to my experience. Fuelled by a lifelong obsession with the role of mannequins in retail, which has led to a career spent selling them, I decided to make the trip after reading about a human-like robot that had been “employed” as a sales assistant in a Japanese department store and had recorded the second-highest sales over the three-month trial period. I wondered if this was the future of mannequins or of retail. I made the pilgrimage to meet the android’s creator, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, and pose the question to him.
I have always believed retail is about those moments created in a store window or within the store where the customer is truly captivated, able to imagine themselves in a different place, time, even body. Mannequins have been central to this aspirational aim; I believed a mannequin can have a “presence” akin to a soul of its own that people connect to. My family rightly think I am crazy, but when I met Mr Ishiguro, he told me that Japanese spirituality maintains that a soul can exist in anything and everything. Known as “sonzai kan” – literally meaning human presence – learning this gave me relief that my life’s fascination with sci-fi films hadn’t sent me completely over the edge. I was normal in Japan.
Ishiguro’s aren’t ordinary robots; they look like normal people. Visiting his lab is like peering into the future, with robots everywhere that seem to want to talk to you. Strange things happen when you first meet Erica, Ishiguro’s most sophisticated robot yet. With features inspired by “the world’s most beautiful women”, she displays 60 different facial expressions and is capable of basic head movements. Her architect, Dr Dylan Glas, has programmed her to a level where she can hold basic conversations with you, employing AI software to create her responses. Erica’s hidden microphones and depth sensors allow her to “listen” as well as determine where you are in the room. Her voice is more advanced than the Siri sound I expected. She feels and smells human in the flesh, not in the scary or creepy way I expected from looking at photos and videos.
He has even created a geminoid (literally twin) of himself, which has allowed him to conduct lectures to students or meetings on his behalf in different counties while tele-operating his doppelganger from his laboratory. He has even reported that a prod on his android cheek 6000 miles away – which he would see only on a video call – has resulted in a phantom physical sensation on his own body.
Dressed in a black leather jacket with a mop of dark hair, Ishiguro appears more rock and roll than mad professor. Talking to him you get to understand his mission is more altruistic than commercial. “I want to change this world with robot technologies,” he explained in a Guardian documentary. “I hope to create the most beautiful and autonomous android in the world.” Dedicated to making the most realistic android possible, with full movement and autonomy, Erica’s architect added that, “When you are creating something that is kind of like a human, you have to examine deeply what it means for us to be human.”
In his experiments he has seen many people respond to androids in much the same way as humans. He believes human-like robots will become truly integrated into society one day, helping us with a multitude of tasks from household chores, caring for the sick and elderly to educating our children. Channel 4’s hit show Humans isn’t as farfetched as we might think.
So where does this fit in with new and innovative ways to engage with our customers? At an Osaka department store, Erica appeared in a window display for a Valentine’s promotion. Her ability to depict a range of emotions allowed her to react to shoppers and passers-by, heightening the levels of engagement and interaction. When she was given a sales assistant position in the same store where she registered the impressive second place for sales, she was selling only six lines of clothing compared to her mortal associates’ 30, in a static position as Erica does not yet have the ability to move around. Ishiguro pointed out that many shoppers, especially men, found it less embarrassing and easier to interact with an android when shopping.
Using this type of technology could be game changing for brands who wish to engage shoppers emotionally in a live retail environment. In today’s highly competitive market, being able to attract, serve and satisfy more customers is a key to success and increasing revenue. A satisfied customer is likely to return. Meeting Ishiguro and seeing his project first-hand has left me convinced that androids will play a significant role in the future of retail. From meet and greet in all the world’s languages, to directions, orders and purchases, the advancements in this technology mean these things are already possible with machines that possess a familiar human form. The retailer suddenly sits on an amazing opportunity to engage with their customer in a brand new way that has never before been possible. Other than cost saving, androids may develop the omni-channel approach to retail without completely dehumanising the experience.
So finally, is there a future for my beloved mannequins, or are they destined for the annals of retail history? With the pace of technological change that is now constantly around us it is hard to predict but I don’t think we are going to be seeing the end of mannequins for many decades to come, just some might soon be talking to us.