'Robot Manicure' Impresses Users As Creators Insist Jobs Aren't at Risk

A video of a "robot manicure" has gone viral after a TikTok user shared her futuristic experience.

Elissa Maercklein posted the clip on May 31 and it has already received over 730,000 likes and 7.2 million views. The video begins with a close-up of her polished nails and the caption: "I got a robot manicure today for $8 in San Francisco and this is what it went like."

The footage that follows shows the "robot" in action—a pink machine made by startup Clockwork. According to follow-up videos, the machine took only 10 minutes to paint Maercklein's nails and she was impressed with the result.

"For me, personally, I'm not that great at painting my nails myself so for $8 I'm happy to have a robot do a much better job than I can do. That said, I don't think this will replace the artistry of nail technicians, but I do think for professionals and working people, it's a really great, quick option to still get your nails done," she said in one clip.

The machine works through a combination of AI and pathplanning. Clockwork co-founder Renuka Apte explained to Newsweek: "So we basically have two cameras, they are 3D cameras. You put your finger in, and those cameras take a lot of pictures really quickly, and put together a 3D map of your nail.

"So think of it like like a pano that you might do on your phone, but in 3D, and then we take that 3D map, and we send it to our AI. The AI sort of figures out what is nail and what is skin, and then that goes to some of our algorithms. It's called path planning, and then it goes ahead and puts nail polish there."

TikTok users, however, were worried about the livelihoods of nail technicians if the machine can do their jobs. "The future is going to put so many people out of jobs. It's cool until it's not," read one of the comments on the clip.

Apte told Newsweek that the likelihood of any nail technicians losing out to the machine is slim. The device can only apply polish and does not trim and shape nails or provide extensions and nail art, she pointed out.

"I don't really think that what we're doing can possibly take away nail salons. So think of it like fast, casual restaurants. Fast food did not take away from sit-down restaurants. That's basically the way we think of it," she explained. "This is meant to be express services: you get in, you get out. That sort of experience, versus a nail salon is more about the artistry, the relaxation, you want to do that sometimes. It's just giving people another option."

Clockwork instead plans to stay as an express machine online, finding them in pre-existing locations like offices and malls rather than their own: "Although we've had like more than 300 inbound emails about franchising since last week, the goal is more to have this in locations where people are. So we're talking about things like commercial buildings. So at your office, if you want to take a quick break and get your nails done, or at retail beauty retailers, so you're already going to buy something and you want to like add to the convenience. That's more where the direction we want to go in," said Apte.

Maercklein tried the machine at its first pop-up store in San Francisco, where it is being trialled with the public. After TikTok took it viral, Clockwork are now fully booked a month in advance —but only because that's as far as they book ahead.

"I was not on TikTok before I heard about the video. So it was pretty surprising. We did the launch on a Friday. And I think this may have come out on the Saturday or Sunday, but like, I woke up and somebody told me, 'Hey, your video has a million views,' and I was like, 'what video?' They were like, 'Oh, you know, this TikTok thing, didn't you guys plant it?' and I was like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about'," Apte told Newsweek.

"That was amazing to watch it was super surprising and also very rewarding, because it's like, okay, people get it. When we were fundraising people were talking about, 'do women really want this? isn't it easy to paint nails?' We got so many questions like that. And this was like real validation."

Manicure machine painting nail
Clockwork's robot manicure machine. Image courtesy of Renuka Apte. Renuka Apte

Some TikTok users who commented on her video were concerned about safety as well as job losses, imagining a Final Destination-style beauty salon disaster. However, Apte's co-founder Aaron Feldstein told The New York Times that the device had features to prevent malfunctions. The machine is not connected to the internet, so it cannot be hacked, and it has a plastic-tipped cartridge that won't injure nails or fingers.

For Maercklein, the most impressive aspect of the experience wasn't her polished nails, but Apte's background. "The founder and CEO of this company is actually both an immigrant and a woman, and why that's interesting is that in the past year in 2020, there was only 2.3 percent of venture capital money that went to women-led, women-created and women-run startups," she said.

"It's incredibly challenging for women to be able to create companies and get funded by venture capitalists, so let's take a moment to appreciate how cool this company is."

As for the future of Clockwork? "We want to be ubiquitous, we want to be as easy as grabbing a cup of coffee. So you're getting out, you realise you have a meeting to run to or a date to run, whatever it is, you should be able to just find a clockwork near you and go get your nails painted. We want to go into some other features of the manicure. but then we were also thinking of like beauty services pretty far out like things like hair."

AI manicure machine and woman
Clockwork's AI manicure machine. Image courtesy of Renuka Apte. Renuka Apte

Update 6/18/21, 02:49 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from Renuka Apte.