This Christmas you'll still have to join the masses huddled at department store cash registers but here's a vision of Christmas future:
You'll enter the department store and head straight to a bank of kiosks. Each kiosk will house a personal computer, stereo speakers and a laser printer.You'll peruse electronic images of the store's merchandise and stroll the aisles electronically, by touching various spots on the computer screen.
The printer can generate a map to guide you to the actual shelf where your purchase awaits you. If you prefer, you can provide your credit card code and your address and leave the store. The package will arrive by overnight delivery.
All the while, the stereo speakers give forth restful harp music or the occasional sound of snapping fingers that remind you how easy this was.
"This will do to stores what automatic teller machines have done to banks," said James Joaquin, one of four Brown University classmates who are showing off a prototype of their automatic retailer machine at Bloomingdale's.
For now, though, the ARM at Bloomingdale's is simply a shopping aid. Shoppers in the store's advanced consumer electronics department can use it to study 70 items but they still have to flag down a human clerk to place their orders.
But Joaquin and his partners in Safire & Spalter, an interactive computing group, have big plans for their invention.
They foresee a Christmas in the not-too-distant future when the kiosk printer generates a bar code, a strip of signals that can be read by a sales clerk's scanning wand. This would enable shoppers to bring the printouts to a cash register, where price and inventory information would be converted into a completed sale.
The whole shopping process conceivably could be completed at the kiosk, if the young inventors can find a backer to underwrite the development of credit card capabilities for ARM.
Helaine Suval, merchandise vice president at Bloomingdale's, said that day "is not too far away. Just look at how many people buy air tickets that way."
Joaquin said Safire & Spalter would like to see Bloomingdale's underwrite further development costs, and perhaps retain licensing rights when other stores install machines. However, Suval said Bloomingdale's is not currently interested in acting as a wholesaler for ARM.