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Disembodied Voices

Gunma: remote interface

Customers of this vending machines situated in Izu Koogen station are talked through the process of obtaining a new travel pass by a remotely located assistant – the machine includes a scanner, highlighted in the photo below, for passing on printed information. If you were to take the red-eye from Tokyo to Salt Lake City and pull your rental into the parking lot of this bagel bakery – standing at the check-out you might unsure whether the server is talking to you, or some remote other. In any given retail context to what extent do you want or expect a human server to be the interface between you and, speaking broadly here, that retail experience?

And in a world of manufactured retail experiences and advertising everywhere the ability and desire of consumers to engage and disengage on their own terms is helped by a deep arsenal of tools – from reading materials to sunglasses, to personal stereos and headphones, to (seemingly) talking on a mobile phone.

Sometimes the inquisitive researcher has to partake in a bit of anti-social behaviour to figure out the boundaries of things – Kate Fox gives an lovely example of deliberately queue jumping in an pub in her book Watching the English – the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour and if you’re British your stomach’s probably just knotted up thinking about her reaction to their reaction so ingrained are our behavioural norms . And so it was yesterday in the Shibuya Apple store going through an entire browsing and purchasing process – avoiding eye contact with the trained-to-acknowledge-your-presence-within-x-seconds greeters and keeping ‘buds firmly in-ears to avoid any form of verbal interaction with the check-out staff. (Whilst raw this break down of an Apple store retail experience has a lot going for it). My own deliberately disengaged experience felt wrong, the body language of the servers and in particular the check-out staff indicated social discomfort, but as a consumer in a carefully crafted retail environment boy was it self-empowering.

Yeah, I know, Apple, Competitor. But I could equally be talking about experiences closer to home. And no, this wasn’t a formal experiment, I do occasionally need to shop y’know.

In our increasingly sensor rich world the arms race for your sensory attention is stepping up a gear. As a consumer sometimes the only way to step back is to kick back. New weapons for the disengaged consumer and the engaging retailer are just around the corner, more of which later.