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Tom Murn presents the Vicki merchandiser, powered by artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence is making big strides in self-service retailing. That much was evident at the recent CES show in Las Vegas, which showcased numerous applications to enable brands to stay relevant as e-commerce continues to grab more of the retail market.

One of the most impressive exhibits using AI was a glassfront merchandiser called Vicki, from ViaTouch Media,  that lets shoppers take products from a shelf and examine them before making a purchase. When the product is removed from the shelf, a video screen above the door plays content related to that particular product.

The customer also can ask questions and get answers about products in the machine from Vicki, thanks to the machine’s audio technology.

If the customer returns the product to the shelf, there is no purchase. If they take the product, their payment account is billed automatically, thanks to the sensors embedded in the shelf.

There is no need for the customer to press a button as there is with traditional vending machines. There are no spirals or coils in the machine’s shelves.

Automated retailing progresses

Vicki represents the brave new world of automated retailing.

At first appearance, the Vicki resembles a glassfront vending machine, but that is where the resemblance ends. The machine’s intelligence gives it far superior product demonstration capabilities than what has been available to date in automated retailing.

The machine will even be able to read sign language, according to Tom Murn, the machine’s creator and a longtime vending operator.

“Everything is about a better experience for the customer,” Murn told Kiosk Marketplace.

While a long-time vending veteran, Murn doesn’t consider Vicki a vending machine.

“It’s not a vending machine. It’s a retail device you can shop in,” he said.

He prefers the term, “automated retail,” to “vending.” He goes as far as foretelling the “death of vending.” The Vicki will operate under multiple approved and pending patents, including AI, at the POS level.

Facial and sound recognition

The Vicki was on display at CES in the Voxx Advanced Solutions Corporation booth and will be available for purchase this quarter, according to Murn. The Vicki uses Voxx’s iris authentication technology which recognizes and authenticates the customer, gets to know their preferences and then acts upon them, serving as a virtual clerk.

Once the machine recognizes the customer’s presence, it uses directed audio technology to communicate with them in a very personalized manner. A camera embedded in the machine detects where the consumer is standing, enabling the audio system to direct beams of sound at the consumer.

A single, front facing speaker array located in the machine’s chassis immediately below the monitor screen at head level calibrates the audio beams to a tight right channel/left channel sound envelope that creates a personalized, transactional area in front of the machine, according to Paul O’Callaghan, senior vice president of sales for Comhear, which provides the audio technology.

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Unlike other types of audio technology, Comhear directs sound to the consumer that will not be heard by others, according to James Winsor, ViaTouch Media’s chief technology officer and IoT director.

“Directional sound now lets you have privacy; you’re not disruptive,” Winsor said.

The audio can be programmed to emit the type of information the machine needs to disseminate. It can, for example, ask the customer if they want to know today’s special offers.

“A hotel might be completely different from a YMCA,” Winsor said. “There are a number of ways you can trigger the AI system. It’ll be a progressively learning AI system.”

Field tests encouraging

Goldman Sachs, Marriott, Home Depot and other corporate sites have tested the Vicki, said Murn, who has enjoyed longstanding relationships with these companies from serving as a refreshment services provider. Murn’s refreshment services company, the Answer Group, based in Farmingdale, New York, is one of the largest vending operations in the metro New York City area.

These companies are mostly managing food and gifts for employees, customers and, depending on the location, the public.

Murn plans to market the system to retailers who will use it to merchandise a variety of products to their customers. He expects the product mix to be 60 percent food and 40 percent higher-ticket items like electronics, gifts, pocketbooks, glasses and cosmetics.

He also envisions retailers leasing the machines to product suppliers to vend specific types of merchandise.

“We’re making more stores within the store,” Murn said.

3 service options

There are three ways the machines can be serviced. Customer locations will be able to service the machines on their own, aided by service materials provided by ViaTouch Media. A servicing app will be available in addition to a consumer app that customers will download to make purchases from the machine.

ViaTouch Media will also have its own service technicians to handle a customer’s service needs.

Customers also can choose to work with third-party vending operators for service needs.

The machines will be available for purchase from the company’s Dallas distribution center in June, Winsor said.

Murn said the machine will sell for about $10,000, a figure that will strike many vending veterans as low, given the machine’s unique technology.

In the works for seven years under Murn’s direction, the Vicki represents the fourth prototype for Murn’s automated retailing machine. Where the last version, called the Lisa, boosted sales 300 percent over a traditional glassfront vending machine in tests, he claims the Vicki will double that gain.

Murn claims to have invested $7 million of his own money in the project and has received as much as $5 million from employees and friends.

The company recently raised $10 million in venture capital from a private equity fund.

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