There are things you don’t need and then those you didn’t think you needed. These are the kinds of once wishful dreams, like a pet-sized vacuum cleaner that does the dirty work as you watch it skitter perched up on your couch; or, a robot that will paint your nails perfectly within ten minutes. San Francisco-based Renuka Apte and her co-founder Aaron Feldstein started working on the idea of a machine manicurist in 2018, when the two realised the gap, and therefore, scope of automation in the beauty space, and also because Apte really wanted to end the cycle of complaining about how much time it took to get her nails done, an activity she loved indulging in regardless. “We felt beauty services should not be reserved for only those who have the time and money for it,” she says. Their company, Clockwork, today has four robots that can paint on all shapes and sizes of nails of humans starting at age 13+.
The robot manicure experience
A little larger than a microwave, the Clockwork robot paints one fingernail at a time and makes whirring sounds as it does the job. You insert a cartridge of polish into the device, like loading a pod into a coffee machine. Currently, it supports 25 colours, which Apte assures will increase overtime. Then, you place your hand on the hand-rest and say ‘ready’. The robot takes pictures of each finger with its two 3D cameras, stitches them together, and ships the result to the proprietary AI. “Our AI can identify edges within sub-millimeter accuracy. This is then sent to our sophisticated algorithms which determine how the nozzle should move to deposit nail polish in the right places,” says Apte. Ten minutes later, you’ll have a fresh set of perfectly painted nails, done by a robot.
Making of a robot manicurist
For the 37-year-old computer science expert who specializes in distributed systems and machine learning, creating the world’s first nail-painting robot meant maneuvering some never-walked-before pathways and covering all loopholes. It started with the first step: to come up with the appropriate methodology to create a smooth coat, “We tried everything from traditional brushes to feltpen-like contraptions to sprays, and finally settled on this 3D-printer-esque way of painting a nail, which was the most reliable and produced the best coat,” says Apte.
Next, building an AI so accurate it can identify edges with sub millimeter accuracy, as opposed to the kinds usually used to build upon like those in self-driving cars, which don’t require that amount of accuracy when it comes to finding the edges, because you’re never driving that close to anything.
Man versus robot
Apte’s company has a patent over the robot manicure they designed and built (both hardware and software). But building a first-of-its-kind robot that could precisely simulate a human manicurist also meant writing algorithms unexplored before. “A lot of robotics algorithms have been written for robots,” says Apte, “which means that 1) they do not touch humans and operate in a relatively deterministic environment, and/or 2) they can take their time doing their work.”
But when it comes to humans, no one nail is the same, and let’s admit it, we hate waiting and get distracted easily. “Humans come in all shapes and sizes and do unpredictable things like moving and sneezing. We had to complete the job while a human waits and before the nail polish solvents dry up.
Interestingly, something that was hard and unexpected was getting the ergonomics right,” reveals Apte. “People need to hold relatively still to get a good coat. Everyone’s hands are shaped so differently, especially the thumbs.” Clockwork also had to find a way for people to feel comfortable and safe while they placed their fingers inside the machine.
So how did they remove the fear of trusting the box—you know, the dread of your hand disappearing into a slot and never returning? They made sure you could see your nails getting painted by the robot in real time, and pull away anytime without spoiling the handiwork, due to the technology’s immediate disengagement mechanism.
The future is AI
Clockwork robots are hoisted at pop ups in the United States (one of them soon to be announced at a well-loved retailer), and the company has received leasing applications from all over the world—97 countries so far. Apte plans to partner with some of the biggest names in retail and real estate in the near future, “we will partner with them to reach our customers where they already are—at work, on errands, while travelling or in their building lounge. We want it to be like grabbing a cup of coffee, that’s the level of access and convenience we’re aiming for.”
And while she works towards making her robots do more than just paint nails, like shaping, or French tips, the future as she sees it is a little more elaborate than that: “I want to be able to step into a cosy pod and come out with all my beauty services done, kinda like in the Jetsons!” Us too, Apte. Until then, we wishfully dream.