Ask Hackaday: Why Are Self-Checkouts Failing?

Most people who read Hackaday have positive feelings about automation. (Notice we said most.) How many times have you been behind someone in a grocery store line waiting for them to find a coupon, or a cashier who can’t make change without reading the screen and thought: “There has to be a better way.” The last few years have seen that better way, but now, companies are deciding the grass isn’t greener after all. The BBC reports that self-checkouts have been a “spectacular failure.” That led us to wonder why that should be true.

As a concept, everyone loves it. Stores can hire fewer cashiers. Customers, generally, like having every line open and having a speedy exit from the store. The problem is, it hasn’t really panned out that way. Self-checkout stations frequently need maintenance, often because it can’t figure out that you put something in the bag. Even when they work flawlessly, a customer might have an issue or not understand what to do. Maybe you’ve scanned something twice and need one of them backed off. Then, there are the age-restricted products that require verification. So now you have to hire a crew of not-cashiers to work at the automated not-register. Sure, you can have one person cover many registers, but when one machine is out of change, another won’t print a receipt, and two people are waiting for you to verify their beer purchase, you are back to waiting. Next thing you know, there’s a line.

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A self-service checkout computer game

Practice Your Shopping Skills With This Self-Service Checkout Game

Self-service checkouts have become a common feature in supermarkets the world over, a trend accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. While some may lament the loss of human contact, others relish the opportunity to do their own scanning: with a bit of practice, self-service can provide for a very fast checkout experience. Assuming, of course, that the machine recognizes each product, the built-in weight sensor works correctly, and you don’t get selected for a random check.

If you want to practice your checkout game without spending loads of money, you might want to have a look at [Niklas Roy] and [Kati Hyyppä]’s latest project: Bonprix is a game where the goal is to scan as many items as possible within a 90-second time limit. Installed at the Eniarof DIY festival, it’s designed to resemble a typical supermarket checkout with a display, a barcode scanner and a shopping basket filled with random items. The screen indicates which item should be scanned next; if you’re too slow, the checkout will begin to offer discounts, which you obviously don’t want. When the 90 seconds are over, the machine spits out a receipt indicating your total score.

The checkout desk is made from wooden pallets and cardboard; inside is a laptop running Linux, with a handheld barcode scanner attached via USB. An LED strip provides a beam of bright red light to indicate the scanning area, and turns green when a barcode is successfully scanned. Arduinos control the LEDs and the big red-and-yellow “start” button, while a thermal printer from an ATM prints the receipts at the end of each game.

Apart from a bit of fun, the Bonprix project tries to address questions relating to consumer culture and self-checkouts: is it fair to let customers do their own work? Should they be paid for it? Is it even ethical to encourage people to spend as much as possible?

While this is the first time we’ve seen a self-service checkout computer game, we’ve done a few deep dives into the fascinating technology of barcodes that makes it all possible. Check this out!

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Robots Are Coming For Our Jobs. Just Not All Of Them.

There is a lot to be said for replacing certain kinds of jobs with robots. Most people would agree that replacing physical human labor with automation is a good thing. It’s especially good to automate the dangerous kinds of labor like some facets of factory work. What about automation in fields that require more mental labor, where physical strain isn’t the concern? Is replacing humans really the best course of action? A year ago, a video called Humans Need Not Apply set forth an explanation of how robots will inevitably replace us. But that narrative is a tough sell.

Whether it is even possible depends on the job being automated. It also depends on how far we are able to take technology, and the amount of labor we are willing to offload. Automation has been replacing human workers in assembly and manufacturing industries for years. Even with equipment and upkeep expenses, the tireless nature of robotic workers means dramatically lower overhead for businesses.

Many of the current forms of factory automation are rather dumb. When something goes wrong and their task is compromised, they keep chugging away. That costs time and money. But there are companies out there producing robots that are better on many levels.

May Your Robot Overlords Be Cute and Cuddly

baxter-heroIn 2013, Rethink Robotics started filling orders for a new line called Baxter. They are a class of general purpose robot that can be programmed to do many kinds of manual tasks. Baxter bots have vision, and they can learn how to do a job simply by watching. They don’t need to be programmed in the traditional sense.

Baxter even has a face – a screen that shows different expressions depending on his state. When he’s in the midst of a task, his eyes are cast downward. If something goes wrong, he stops what he’s doing. His cartoon face appears sort of shocked, then sad. He goes into safe mode and waits to be fixed.

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