February 2

A Robot Painted My Nails

Yesterday I was wandering around the Oklahoma City airport when I spotted a big sign in the back corner of a cute little store.

My nerd radar kicked in, and I investigated.

The sign was way bigger than the actual device itself, which ended up being a black box a little bit bigger than a mini fridge on top of a table.

The 3D nail printing “minicure” robot came from a company called Clockwork, and the OKC airport model (one of just a dozen or so in the country) had just been installed the previous week and attracted all the local press.

A woman is standing in front of a clockwork 3d printer, observing the intricate robot-like mechanisms.

I recognized this opportunity as the perfect example of #nerdstyle, so I signed up.

You have to register online

There’s a touchscreen above the nail station, but you can’t just sit down and press a button to get a mani. You have to use a QR code to make a reservation, and the store clerk said that the available slots are usually 10 minutes out (my wait was just 2 minutes). You can make a reservation online beforehand as well if you know you’re going to have time to get one at the airport.

There’s a “bit of a learning curve”

I registered and paid online (just $15!) and waited two minutes. When my official appointment started, the interactive screen welcomed me and we got started.

Apparently the founders are concerned that you won’t know that there’s a “bit of a learning curve.” So they warn you on the site. And on the interactive screen. And the clerk repeated it a couple of times. Gee, do you think there’s a learning curve?

First timer? Operating robots is a breeze, with no learning curve.

The process took 23 minutes

My appointment started at 4:20, and I stood up at 4:43 with painted nails. That included choosing the polish (I am always undecided), minimal prep for my nails, watching their intro video, having a full-on live coaching session with a helpful real person (see below), redoing one finger and sitting a few minutes to dry.

It took about 30 seconds to paint a nail, so when I do this again (and I will), I bet I’ll finish in about 10 minutes.

Great design and set up

Every little piece of the machine was well thought out and cool. One of the first steps was to take a little polish remover jar and place it in a spinning holder so I could just stick my finger in and watch it spin off old polish (or the messed up one). It cracked me up.

A table with a lot of different items, including nails and a painted robot.

The table had nail prep tools so you could clean and shape your nails before painting. From their FAQs: “The robot is designed to paint on clean, bare, polish-free nails. Please do not come with base coat or another coat of polish on, it will confuse the robot and it will not paint well. If you recently had gel or acrylics, and there is some residue, the robot may have some challenges with painting perfectly.”

It also had a long padded pillow to stabilize your arm and some polish drying drops.

Choosing the color was fun

It took me a while to pick the color, but that always happens. The polish comes from OPI, a quality and well-regarded brand. They had tons of colors, and the little paint pen was adorable.

A person holding a bottle of nail polish in front of a display of painted nails.
A woman's hand holding a red nail polish sticker, painted nails.

I chose one of my old OPI favorites: “I’m Not Really a Waitress.” You can see all the color choices on the site as well.

They warn you not to move, and they mean it

Much of the intro video addressed the need to keep your hands very still and your arms relaxed. They warned you not to try to “help the robot” by moving your fingers while painting, and they also warned against trying to take a picture or video.

Since I was getting this procedure for the sole purpose of reporting on it (not really — I needed a manicure), of course I tried to take pictures and video the process. And I got busted.

Big brother is watching

There’s a button on the interface that encourages you to ask for live help, but I didn’t know that the live help was watching the process from afar. My attempts to wrangle my camera for a video had resulted in an unauthorized wiggle, and I had to redo one nail. Seconds later, the screen starts ringing loudly (enough to startle me!). Then a friendly (but loud) voice greeted me.

“I’m here to help you get the best experience,” she said. “I see that you had some movement. Are you having trouble following directions?”

(I’m not sure that’s exactly what she said, but that’s the gist.) I didn’t confess that I was wiggling because I was trying to take video, but I think she knew. Apparently there are different camera angles that someone monitors when you’re using the machine. She was on with me for several minutes while I tried to do my thumb (which was the toughest). I realized I was going to have to follow the rules and take this whole “be still” thing seriously.

The painting is fascinating to watch

This 18-second video walks you through the whole process and shows very clearly how the robot traces the nail and then colors it in with a circular pattern.

After the manicure was over, I realized how complicated the process must be. The device paints to the edge of each person’s nails, so it must evaluate the length, curve, angle, bumps and ridges in milliseconds to get the right coverage.

I would show you the video I took when it painted my nails, but… (see above).

The polish goes on thick

My experience with both home and professional manicures is that we apply a thin basecoat followed by two thin layers of polish, finishing with a top coat. With the robot, it’s one and done. I felt that the end result was perfectly acceptable but looked a little thick and didn’t have that topcoat shine. Today I added the top layer and am happier with the overall look.

The only issues came from operator error

The thumbs were the toughest to position and polish. Both of them ended up with a little overpaint at the tips. I accept full responsibility because I don’t think I got the right angle. The problem was very minor and didn’t affect the nail itself, so I didn’t bother redoing them.

A person's toe nail with a red polish on it.

The only nail I started over with was the one where I had wiggled, and it was because the pen misaligned causing a crescent-shaped unpainted area. I simply swirled the bad one with the polish remover spinner and redid it.

Customers love the robot manicures, and this worries me

A woman is standing in front of a painted nail machine.

I’m not a regular visitor to nail salons, but I think a basic manicure starts at about $20 plus tip. That would include having someone else shape and prep your nails. Clockwork was $15 at the airport, and it looks like their non-airport locations are $10.

For someone like me with simple polish needs, I’d choose this hi-tech, low-contact, DIY option every time. I asked the store clerk if she had seen unhappy customers, and she said no, everyone had been thrilled.

The ease and success of this device means that talented nail technicians are losing business to big black boxes. In this era of fear that AI will replace jobs, the personal service industry should be safe. But if a robot can replace a skilled, trained worker, I fear for other industries as well.

I can’t imagine that a robot could cut and color my hair, but if you’re getting a buzz cut… I don’t know now that I’ve seen how easy robot manicures are.

Would you get a robot manicure?

As I said… my nail care needs are minimal. Would this solution appeal to regular nail salon patrons? What if they could do acrylics or add nail art? Would love to hear your thoughts.


Tags

just plain fun, on the go, robots


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  • I don’t usually get manicures, but I would try this on a whim. I DO get pedicures, and I notice that many people coming to get manicures have very specific requests, including multiple colors, French tips, gels, etc and etc, so I don’t think the robots will take jobs in the near future.

  • FUN! I have “I’m Not Really a Waitress.” on my toes, but it wasn’t done by a robot. I would definitely explore the robot route just to say I did.

  • Wow! I wouldn’t mind trying this. I do worry about the impact these things are going to have on people’s jobs, however.

  • I’m not much for a mani/pedi. Nail polish just never lasts long on my fingers. However, I think if a robot started doing pedicures (which doesn’t seem far off after this), I’d be more prone to do that on a regular basis.

  • It sounds as though the things the robot can’t do, and I can’t always do it well myself, is clean up dry skin, cuticles and shape. But for an off week, I would definitely try it. Interesting and thank you. Geez! What’s next???

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