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Vending machine watches you, offers drink advice

Touch-screen vending machines in Japan can tell the age and gender of users to offer drink suggestions. "Minority Report," anyone?

TOKYO--Japan has vending machines that can talk to you, sell you everything from bags of rice to porn magazines to bouquets of flowers, and recharge your phone. But a new breed of automated seller has smarts, too--these machines can detect your age and gender and offer drink suggestions accordingly.

The new machines under the Acure brand were recently installed in Tokyo's Shinagawa Station and they're about the size of two refrigerators.

Japan has roughly one vending machine for every 22 people. Fortunately, they're not all this big. Tim Hornyak/CNET

Run by a company under the JR East railway group, the "next-generation drink machines" are imposing enough, but fortunately they don't talk to you. They have cameras that use facial-recognition algorithms to match customers' faces to a database of people types.

When you stand in front of the machine, it takes a second to process your image. It will then recommend some of the roughly 35 drinks displayed on its large touch-screen panel by showing little cartoonish speech bubbles next to them.

Unlike other vending machines in Japan, it does not have any plastic mock-ups of bottled drinks, just images of them onscreen.

Users can pay with coins or smart cards such as Suica that are now ubiquitous in Japan. When the large screen isn't showing the drink menu, it shows a pair of cartoonish eyes peeping at passersby. Naturally, the machine has been to Ceatec 2010 and even has its own blog.

At one machine on the main concourse of Shinagawa, I saw a Japanese businessman being offered Coke as a suggested beverage, while a Japanese woman was offered a water-like vitamin drink.

I'd heard the machines can't process non-Asian faces, so I approached with trepidation (I'm also too tall for the height of the camera). But the machine seemed to take my gaijin face in stride, and consistently offered me an energy drink popular among hungover salarymen.

Maybe it detects jet lag too.