THEY were meant to revolutionise supermarket shopping. But self-service checkouts have so far proved about as popular as screaming toddlers, impenetrable packaging and endless repeats of Christmas hits.
Now Scots scientists are developing a "humanised" self-service checkout that will take away the fear and frustration of dealing with a machine and speed up the transaction.
A combination of psychology and sophisticated computer animation is being used to create self-service cyber assistants. Using realistic eye movements and facial expressions, these tireless virtual workers will guide shoppers through the tills. Initial results suggest the technology could help get customers through self-service checkouts 40 per cent faster than at present.
Self-service checkouts have been introduced by all the major supermarkets in a bid to cut queues at traditional "manned" checkouts. It is estimated that 15,000 automated checkouts will have been installed by next year.
Despite the investment, consumers are proving hard to win over, with many complaining that the machines are unreliable and difficult to use.
A recent test of self-service versus traditional checkouts at Morrisons, Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco found the DIY option was significantly slower at all of them. Some shoppers simply dislike using machines and prefer human contact.
Researchers at Abertay University, Dundee, believe that putting a human face on self-service checkouts is the answer. Robin Sloan, a computer arts expert at Abertay, said the question they tackled was: "How do we humanise these machines in order to make them more acceptable?
"A lack of trust, the worry that they won't be able to work the machine or something will go wrong, may be addressed by designing a human-computer interface that is both friendly and responsive."
Sloan and his colleagues created a computerised face capable of sophisticated eye movements. He said: "Previous research has shown that the gaze of another human can help to guide attention.
"As machines such as self-service checkouts have become more powerful, we were interested in finding out whether full character animation would enhance this effect. Currently, we tend to find that a lot of self-service machines use static imagery or simple animation."
In the experiment, the cyber assistant looked at one of the options available on the self-service checkout. Eye-tracking equipment proved that shoppers quickly followed this simple cue and looked at the correct option.
Sloan said the fully animated cyber assistant improved customer reaction by up to 40 per cent compared with still images or simple animation."This finding would support the implementation of more sophisticated animation on these devices," said Sloan.
Abertay are working closely on self-service technology with NCR, a major manufacturer of retail equipment. Executives at the firm have been shown demonstrations of animated cyber assistants.
Sloan said they were also working to introduce complex and realistic emotions into the face of the cyber assistant. Consumers are more likely to engage with the new generation of machines if the cyber assistants are lifelike. Subtle expressions can be used to encourage consumers and sympathise if they run into difficulties.
The team is also working on tracking technology that tells the cyber assistant where the customer is and what they are doing. Sloan said: "A repeated command to 'scan an item' is unhelpful if the user is not currently facing the machine."
Customers said they would welcome more effective self-service checkouts. Anne Marie McGhee, from Melrose, said: "I don't hate self-service checkouts. I would use them at a push, but they nearly never work and always seem to take longer."
Aberdeen University student Emily Eaton Turner said: "I can't stand them. They are a nightmare to use. They are always very busy but no-one seems to be able to use them properly and they are never very responsive or helpful."
The need to make self-service checkouts more popular and effective is increasingly urgent, according to research by The Grocer magazine. It claims that average queuing times for staffed tills at Tesco and Sainsbury's, the retailers with the most self-service checkouts, have increased over the past two years.
At Tesco, which has 6,000 self-service checkouts in its 1,200 stores, the average wait for a staffed till lengthened from five minutes, 15 seconds in 2008 to five minutes, 42 seconds this year. Sainsbury's saw a smaller rise, from five minutes, 30 seconds to five minutes, 35 seconds.
The shopworkers' union has complained that frustrated customers are increasingly taking their anger out on supermarket staff. And technology is not the only issue standing in the way of customers warming to self-service. Tesco recently banned alcohol going through self-service tills, infuriating some customers.
One young mother shopping at Tesco's St Rollox store in the north-east of Glasgow recently complained: "Being able to buy only certain items through certain checkouts completely defeats the point of the self-service tills."
Despite the evidence, some of Britain's biggest supermarkets last night denied they had a problem.
A spokesman for Morrisons said the introduction of self-service stations complements existing manned checkouts "and has increased the number of payment terminals available to customers".
A spokesman for Tesco insisted they were "pleased that a large number of customers use our self-service checkouts".
He added: "We continue to invest in them for the benefit of customers.We know that they are popular for many different reasons, from customers being able to pack at their own pace to involving their kids in the shopping."