As you all know, Japan is the land of the vending machine. (Remember the capsule toys we showed you?) Even those of you residing overseas have no doubt heard of the quirky and bizarre (need we mention the used underwear vending machine or the live crab UFO catcher?) The countryside is dotted with contraptions selling everything from piping hot French fries to farm fresh eggs. Recently, however, even the ordinary machines are becoming a little extraordinary. So we headed to the biannual vending machine manufacturers’ exhibition Vendex Japan at Tokyo’s Big Sight to see the newest innovations. Get your coins ready!
Written by Rebecca Milner
In kind cooperation with CScout Japan
To go back a bit, the first known vending machine was a pneumatically driven holy water vending machine in an Egyptian temple in Alexandria in 215 B.C. The first Japanese machine made its dedebut over 2 millenniums later in 1890 and the oldest existing stamp vending machine from 1904 can still be seen at the Museum Meiji-Mura. Since then, the number of machines has risen to an astonishing 5,405,300, making Japan the country with the highest concentration in the world (one for every 23 people!) While half of these are standard soft drink vending machines, a surprising number of contraptions sell more unusual fare. There are 118,000 machines selling razors and socks and an impressive 5,500 issuing cans of noodles.
According to a survey by the Japanese Vending Machine Manufacturers Association (check out their fun PDF and more stats, if you’re interested,) 22 percent of respondents used a vending machine almost or at least once a day! Last year the income from these handy vendors totaled just shy of 7 trillion yen!
Since August 2005, Sapporo-based blogger Motomachi has been taking daily pictures of the same vending machine near his home and meticulously recording the minute changes in products, advertising campaigns, and even seasonal decorations: I take a picture of a vending machine everyday (or so.) I am sorry. His site has earned a number of followers and for them he has created a printable paper cut-out model of his much-loved vending machine. See some of the results here and here on Flickr!
Now, before you argue with us about the environmental issues of vending machines, we are pleased to show you some of the latest products at Vendex Japan that have been designed with some of these concerns in mind:
1. Eco Vending Machines
Fuji Electric’s new machine has solar panels on the roof and moss covering the sides! Green. Literally. Photo by CScout Japan
Reduced energy consumption vending machines are standard and fluorocarbon free ones are in the works, but how about a solar powered vending machine covered in moss! Fuji Electric Co., Ltd. displayed a prototype of what might be the vending machine of the future: Solar panels supply the energy used for cooling and heating the beverages, while the moss covering helps improve insulation. The green décor would also give our grey city streets a more natural look and help vending machines in scenic locales blend into the environment!
Coca-Cola is also engaging in a little green-washing, teaming up with Fuji Electric to release a 100 percent hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-free machine that will be presented at the G8 summit in Hokkaido this July.
2. Age recognition
Let’s see how old you are: Fujitaka’s face recognition scanner to prevent underage consumers from buying tobacco. Photo by CScout Japan
In order to prevent minors (under 20) from purchasing cigarettes, manufacturer Fujitaka has created a tobacco vending machine equipped with face recognition software. Simply align your face with the small mirror (which is really a digital camera) and press the button to scan your face. The system then compares facial characteristics, including skin firmness and lines around the eye, to a database created from over 100,000 faces to determine if the potential buyer is in fact an adult. Currently these machines are deployed all over Japan and will reach Tokyo by July. Yay, let’s see how old the machine guesses we are!
Officially from this July, all smokers have to register for a TASPO card to get their kicks from tobacco machines… Photo by CScout Japan
Fujitaka is reporting a 90 percent accuracy rate — the program has a tendency to discriminate against baby-faced adults who may need to use an ID card with proof of age on an additional scanner. The TASPO card will be required on all Japanese vending machines from July. Although the face recognition system has yet to be approved by the government, Fujitaka is betting that if it is, smokers will prefer this style of age verification — giving Fujitaka’s vendors a commercial edge.
3. Local guide
Fancy discovering a new place to eat while you pick up your morning canned latte? Innovator Fujitaka has also introduced a series of vending machines that turn these ubiquitous eyesores into interactive tools. Featuring touch screen monitors, these Monitan machines offer area maps, info about local dining and entertainment establishments, route guidance for how to get from here to there, train schedules and City Office news. When potential customers approach the machine, the monitor comes to life with animated instructions and commercials for local sponsors. Right now, you can spot Monitan machines in Shibuya and Akihabara, and if they catch on there, we are sure you’ll be seeing them around every corner pretty soon.
4. Gourmet quality beverages
Authentic Italian coffee — from a M-one café vending machine! Photo by CScout Japan
Apex Corp.’s M-one café features an authentic Italian espresso brewer that intends to improve upon the rather artificial flavor of most packaged beverages. And instead of the usual vending machine’s utilitarian look, this mimics the counter of a real coffee shop, complete with menu board! Then, during the brewing process, the monitor shows the coffee being automatically prepared. Using the touch screen menu, patrons can customize their selected coffee drink such as cappuccino, latte, etc. by coffee strength, sweetness, and milkiness. Iced drinks, using freshly crushed ice, are also possible. But does it speak Italian when the coffee is ready?
5. Cashless machines
By now, we’re all getting used to getting canned coffee simply by holding the SUICA train card at the vending machine’s sensor. Practical! Photo by CScout Japan
Like society in general, vending machines are moving to a cashless system of transaction. These days, most of the vending machines in and around Tokyo train stations allow users to pay with either their SUICA or PASMO train card or mobile phone (pictured left.)
Coca-Cola Japan takes this one step further by offering its own mobile phone payment system and point club available at all so-called Club CMode machines. In addition to earning points towards free drinks, members receive emails to their mobile phones that include updates on new products and occasionally a coupon for a free drink, which is actually a barcode that can be scanned by these machines. If you want to check one out, have a look at their Tokyo map (below.)
Of course the best cashless vending machine is one that doesn’t make us pay at all! Or so we thought. We found a vending machine in Harajuku’s Sample Lab (an Apex M-one café no less, as pictured above) that asks customers to watch a 30 second commercial instead of handing over the usual ¥100. Hmm… what’s the better deal?
In any case, we’re off for hot latte! But hopefully not one from a can… Have you spotted any freaky vending machines in your neighbourhood? Let us know!
Thanks to CScout Japan for their help!