Lab Mirror Retail Idea: A Little Impractical And A Lot Creepy

Early this month, The New York Times R&D Lab started talking up some work it is doing to create an interactive mirror. The idea is that consumers would replace their regular mirrors with this souped-up, voice-recognizing networked version. It responds to the command "Mirror?" You can place a bottle of antacid on the ledge and it will identify it, offer instructions and perhaps a coupon. It will also create a digital tie and "place" it on your neck to try and match your shirt.

This is a very clever project, but I have to wonder whether it has any practical value. There is something ultra-sensitive about a bathroom mirror. Yeah, there's that naked thing and the video-streaming thing that may not play well together. When I think of all of the potentially creepy implementations of RFID, mobile geolocations and facial recognition, I think an interactive video-capable mirror using Microsoft Kinect has got to rank right up there.

But putting the creepy fears aside, the Times is talking about using this for news stories, commercials, coupons and much more. A bathroom mirror, however, is not positioned for lengthy viewing. There's unlikely to be anything to sit on. (No! Do not go there.)

Brian House, the Times' Creative Technologist, said in a video demo that the interaction may start in the mirror but it then goes elsewhere.

"I can call up a coupon here, and then save it to my phone, and then go to a physical location to redeem it. So, again, it's a conversation that happens in front of the mirror, but then it can drive behavior elsewhere, out in the world," House said. "A similar thing with prescription information. There's a lot of information behind this, and I can call it up by putting it on the shelf. So it's personalized to my particular prescription: It shows my doctor and how many days I have left with this prescription, and when my next appointment is, etc. And you can imagine knowing what you've taken and what you haven't taken—or, if you have a family, knowing which medication is yours, or for elderly people to help them take their medications on time. So there's a lot of possibilities in this domain, too."

That's great, but why not just take the shelf portion and enable it to connect (USB? Bluetooth?) to a traditional laptop or tablet? Sure, it's cool to do it on a mirror, but why would you want to? Besides, if you break your laptop, it won't punish you further with seven years bad luck.

House also detailed the tie effort, saying that it could store previous outfits that the consumer has worn and compare it. If it's a physical outfit, couldn't the consumer do that quite easily? If it's a virtual outfit, wouldn't the laptop/tablet be a better platform, especially in a room with chairs and other conveniences?

Sometimes, lab ideas are great at detailing the "what if we?" issues, but much weaker at the "why would we want to?" ones.