Virtual Colonel: KFC targets 'trendier' clientele with voice-activated AI booth

Campaign Asia-Pacific took the futuristic 'Kolonel Fast Connect' kiosk for a test-drive in Hong Kong.

Alan Chan, CEO of KFC Hong Kong, and pop star Louis Cheung at the launch ceremony
Alan Chan, CEO of KFC Hong Kong, and pop star Louis Cheung at the launch ceremony

"Tortillas." "TOR-tillas?" Tort-ILLAS!!" Diners at the Admiralty branch of KFC in Hong Kong should prepare to get used to this: the slightly tortured sounds—accompanied by jerky hand movements—of customers attempting to order their finger-lickin'-good meals from Kolonel Fast Connect, the fast-food chain's new voice and motion-activated ordering system.

Inside the single futuristic kiosk, which took KFC six months to develop and cost HK$1m (£100,000), an animated, virtual Colonel Harland Sanders guides customers through their order process on a transparent OLED screen. Users must download the new KFC mobile app and make an advance payment of HK$50 via contactless technology before using the kiosk; any money left over once the order is made is automatically donated to the World Food Programme. 

While Campaign Asia-Pacific put the machine’s CrystalVoice technology to the test in English (below), Kolonel Fast Connect is also noteworthy for boasting the first Cantonese voice-recognition system in the world. That such a system has not been made before is partly down to the relatively small number of native speakers, but also to the complications of the language.

Ravel Lai, regional IT and digital director for the Jardine Restaurant Group, KFC’s parent company, explained that no fewer than 50 people were involved in training up Kolonel Fast Connect so it could get used to different Cantonese accents. Embedded AI technology means the machine will continue to learn as it goes; while initially it was around 50% accurate at detecting Cantonese words, Lai said, now it is closer to 80%.

The result of our own English-language trial was largely positive. The machine picked up KFC meal names easily enough. But although it correctly transcribed the words "How do I pay?", it hasn’t yet learned that this means the same as "checkout". And while KFC is extremely proud of the machine’s motion-sensor gadgetry—Intel RealSense Technology, to give it its full name—which is supposedly so precise it can detect even finger movements and lets users virtually ‘grab’ the meal they want, our trials show it takes a little getting used to: not ideal for queue lengths.

But once the machine gets up to scratch and others are installed around the region, as planned, will KFC’s cashier staff be out of work? Lai said the brand is not thinking about cutting jobs because hiring people in the F&B sector is not easy. "We want to save manpower on the cashier counter so that we can shift our manpower to preparing the food and preparing better service."

Alongside attracting a younger, trendier clientele, as Lai explained in our video, the new kiosk’s real purpose is to encourage downloads of KFC’s new food-ordering app, with all its data-gathering potential. Alan Chan, chief executive of KFC Hong Kong, said he expects 200,000+ downloads in the first six months: the hope is that this will cut queue times, leading to 5% revenue growth during rush hour.

But does Kolonel Fast Connect give out extra ketchup if you smile nicely? "It just needs programming," was the official response from Lai. "If a customer has this need for extra sauce, we can do this."

Perhaps we will not be abandoning the human-manned tills just yet.

A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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