A lovely young woman sits with her purse in her lap and her phone in her hands. She coyly smiles, looks around, and yawns as she waits in a department store. If a stranger begins to pester her, she ignores him. This scenario is fairly ordinary. However, this is no ordinary young woman: this is an android mannequin responding to curious shoppers from the inside of a window display.
As part of a Valentine’s Day promotion, Tokyo department store Takashimaya will be displaying Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoid-F android mannequin in its store window. The life-like mannequin has a set of 60 different facial expressions at its disposal to lure in and interact with passing shoppers. The robot is connected to a Kinect sensor complete with facial recognition software that allows for it to have a unique response to each person who passes by.
Dr. Ishiguro believes that the android is ideal for commercial use as it is more realistic than a traditional mannequin and is the next best alternative to having a fashion model standing in a shop window for an entire day. The series of emotions and reactions in the android’s repertoire are designed to engage with shoppers while showing off the store’s merchandise. Dr. Ishiguro sees this type of mannequin as having a future in visual merchandising at stores not only in Tokyo but possibly in New York.
The new android mannequin has been attracting attention more for its innovation rather than for its commercial appeal. If these android mannequins replace traditional mannequins, there could be a problem of customers becoming more interested in the robots rather than in the merchandise. Seeing these robots encased behind department store windows along fashionable New York City avenues could cause quite the commotion. However, once the novelty of the mannequins was to wear off, does it have the potential to increase commercial sales?
Aside from the commercial interests of switching out older mannequins for android mannequins, there are ethical concerns that will need to be addressed as well. According to Dr. Ishiguro, immobile traditional mannequins “don’t represent real life at all which is what I see as the point of some displays”. Should visual displays aim at reproducing real life? If that is in fact what these visuals are aiming for, what does it say about our reality to have life-like mannequins on display to be gawked at by passersby all day every day?
The idea behind the android mannequin is that it can connect with the customer on a more personal level that older mannequins simply do not have the ability to do. I would counter that retailers already have an excellent contact for human connection: the sales employees. Most retail stores tend to encourage their employees to wear the store’s merchandise so that customers can see the clothes on an actual person who can speak at length about the quality and fit of the clothes. The interaction between the customer and employee is what I believe the android mannequin is trying to replicate although the robot falls far short of this goal.
The sheer cost of the android mannequin is enough to keep retailers from jumping at the chance to purchase them, but who knows how long that impediment will remain. Should these android mannequins be the pinnacle of visual merchandising?