Encounter of the third kind?

Last week, on my way through security on a flight to Lisbon, I came across this unexpected, ghost- like figure (see the picture illustrating this post).

Towering over a nondescript desk-like structure which she seemed stuck to. With a Colgate-like smile permanently stuck to her face, she was cheerfully reminding anyone bothered to pay any attention of the basic rules pertaining to liquid allowance and transparent bags.

It was an unexpected sight in the not too futuristic setting of Luton airport. It did feel like a vision of the future. How could a fairly standard video of a person displayed on a screen feel like such a futuristic sight?

Why was that?

Thinking, Fast and Slow. When design fools our senses..

I think this was achieved through the simple means of the screen having the shape of a human body.

It does seem fairly low tech doesn’t it?

The person-shaped screen triggered a deeply ingrained piece of shape recognition software in the passive part of my brain dealing with quick assessments and first impressions. My conscious brain received a message telling it that it was facing a fellow human being. The analytical part of my brain on the other hand, was adequately (and more slowly) recognising a screen and an image projected onto it.

The net result, a feeling that this screen felt almost human without being able to point out exactly why.

At least that’s my post analysis based on my rudiments of cognitive theory and my reading of “Thinking,  Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.  If you are an expert in cognitive theory, let me know if you share this explanation.

Humanising the web?

That contraption, though I really feel that I should be referring to “she” rather than “it”, is the most vivid example I have seen of a machine/digital experience managing to provide a “human” feel. And I found that very intriguing when it’s not the usual angle of the discussions I have seen around humanising the web/the digital/a machine experience. These discussions usually revolve more around the customer need driven experience, the tone of voice, customer first. Even AI is focused around tricking our analytical self. Here it’s vision and gut feel that are tricked, literally humanising a machine (screen) by fooling our brain into categorising it (to some extent) with other fellow human beings.

That is indeed a very powerful thing as we are after all, very emotional beings, with inbuilt behaviours geared up to creating strong responses towards other fellow humans.

More questions than answers..

I won’t conclude as to the potential success of these people shaped screens in a retail environment. At first sight they sure make an impression.

Below are some  questions this brings to mind:

  • What are the economics of these screens? Cost, maintenance, ability to update with different personas and scenarios, reliability?
  • I would be wary of this being an overly customised piece of kit, with little ability to adapt to various needs (new personas, behaviours, etc)
  • What would such a screen feel like with a AI interface a la Siri? What kind of engagement would that create in a retail scenario?
  • How long lasting is the “human feel” of the experience, once customers are exposed to it on a regular basis?
  • Are there transparent screens technology out there that can be used for the same purpose ( and that can end up being much more versatile)?
  • How easy and economical is it to build custom shaped screens?

If  you have seen these screens in other contexts or similar screens with different shapes, please do share your thoughts and pictures.