While passing by the Shinkansen ticket gates at Tokyo Station, I noticed a vending machine that didn’t seem to belong there. Strange in this land of vending machines, I know, but something about this machine was different.

I edged in for a closer look and noticed the large LCD panel on the front of the sleek, high-tech machine. Other travelers, too, stopped in their tracks to gawk at the machine and touch it. Could this be a special, new type of vending machine unique to Tokyo Station?

It turns out that these next-generation vending machines have been popping up in Shinagawa, Shinjuku and several other major JR stations since last year. One was even installed in Sendai Station up north.

A long line of soft drinks stretches across the high-intensity LCD touch panel, and at first glance, they look like the drinks in any other vending machine. The fact that everything on display is digital is a bit unsettling at first, but the images are fresh and crisp, and they beckon and tantalize.

The machine handles its own advertising through digital signage and an Internet connection. It is also equipped with a camera that allows it to distinguish the gender and age of anybody who walks by and even to pick one person out of a crowd. These identification features enable the machine to advertise its products in a more targeted manner.

When I walked up to the machine to try and buy a drink, it suggested bottled water and flashed a message about how cold and refreshing my bottle would be. Sure enough, the sparkling, delicious-looking water on the screen made me want to buy bottled water!

Touch an image of a soft drink, and an enlarged image of the drink floats in front of you so you can get a good look at it. Somehow, I doubt that anyone will walk away from this machine with the wrong drink!

Amidst all the wonder, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of advanced technology on everyone’s efforts to conserve electricity. How does digitizing vending machines translate into reducing electricity consumption?

Full of doubt, I contacted JR East Water Business, the company behind the development of these next-generation vending machines, to pose the above question. They answered:

These new vending machines definitely consume more electricity than the old vending machines. However, they stop refrigerating the drinks and turn the LCD panels off at certain times, and their presence means a reduced number of old machines. Overall, electricity consumption is down 25%.

How about that? New technology and more efficient use of power all at once! It also seems that some of the new machines are not being used in efforts to conserve electricity. Hopefully, the new machines break up the pointless clusters of old vending machines we have now.

The company also said that if supplies are not getting through after a large earthquake, the new vending machines will be able to provide drinks at no charge, just as the old vending machines do in those situations now. Of course, that can only happen when power is still running to the machines, and I wondered how effective this benefit really was during the disasters in March.

Power is indeed required for this to happen with the new machines, but their network connection enables them to switch modes automatically, whereas someone has always had to come by and manually change the old vending machines one by one.

JR East  is planning on installing 500 of these new-generation vending machines in train stations within the next two years. Anyone who passes through the JR East network will likely have encounters with these convenient machines.