Even for an ice cream story, you can't get much more saccharin than this: A Unilever-backed vending machine that literally takes consumer smiles as payment for its product. Well, a smile plus a photo marketing release form coupled with a biometric guess of the consumer's age and gender.
Unilever, the $49 billion company that's also the world's largest ice cream company - it owns brands including Ben & Jerry's, Good Humor, Breyers, Klondike and Wall's-is testing an ice cream machine in Lisbon (Portugal), Singapore and Paris (a U.K. location is imminent) that asks customers to smile.
The vending machine measures the smile and, if it's large enough, the customer gets a free ice cream treat. But first, that customer has to agree to allow her smiling photo to be used by Unilever on a Facebook brand page and potentially later on Twitter and YouTube.
"We can actually force the person to smile," said Michael Leonard, director of digital merchandising for SapientNitro, the vendor that created the machines for Unilever. Force? "Sure. They don't get the ice cream if they don't smile."
When fully deployed, the machines will be vending for cash and "randomly selected people" will be offered the opportunity to smile broadly for their free treat, Leonard said. "We haven't actually decided that number. It might be one of out of 10, one out of 20. We'll be doing further market tests to figure out what the optimal number will be."
Each machine will hold about 400 units of single-serving ice cream bars. "Once they smile, we give them the choice of four different flavors from the machine's stock," Leonard said.
The machine itself is fairly sophisticated and costs about $20,000 per unit. First, it automatically detects when consumers are nearby, using facial recognition and some sense of the likely distance of the face (and, presumably, the person attached to the face). It then uses a variety of animations and images-cars, submarines and a blimp, among others-and integrates them with video of people near the machine to lure people to get closer to the machine.
The system then tries to position one person's face within various frame images. "We'll use funny hats, a mustache, glasses, bow tie, afro hair, things like that," Leonard said. It's an approach that holds people's attention because "they're playing with the augmented reality."
But ice cream sales have not so infrequently been at the forefront of technological advances. Just last month, a Minnesota ice cream parlor used RFID and lasers to signal flavors that were still available. The Dairy Queen chain has been one of the first to experiment with RFID stickers that attach to a wallet or a phone to make them function like credit cards. And the Cold Stone Creamery ice cream chain was planning for customizing packages for individual customers long before any of its rivals took the idea seriously.
The Unilever machine is networked with a central station so the images can be periodically downloaded ("we batch 'em up and transmit every 15 to 20 minutes") and inventory can be checked and refills scheduled.
The machines can be connected to headquarters several different ways, including hardwired, wireless antennae or a 3G card. (The five machines in Portugal, for example, are all 3G.)
The facial recognition software will project the customer's age-within seven years-and take a guess at the gender. It will also analyze the expression to record the mood when the customer was first seen ("angry, happy, sad, surprised" according to a Unilever promotional video).
To qualify for the free product, consumers must press the share button, which acts as an automatic opt-in form. And when a person tries to position his face within that funny hat frame, it helps to get the face in the perfect position, which is critical for the software to find the mouth and literally measure the smile. It displays the results on a-we couldn't make this up-smile-o-meter, which measures the smile 15 times a second. If the smile isn't wide enough, no ice cream is released.
One of the more interesting parts of the machine is an antitheft feature, which combines multiple technologies. Let's say someone is trying to steal money or the ice cream by yanking the machine back and forth or trying to topple it over.
"It has a shock sensor, so it knows when it's being tilted,"
Leonard said. The machine is constantly grabbing video, so it will have images of whoever approached it last. And its connection allows the machine to immediately transmit those images back to headquarters, which can send police. A potential arrest and video of the thief doing the breaking. That's an ice cream machine that knows how to defend itself.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By Evan Schuman
Special to CBSNews.com