I Tried The World’s First Robot Manicure

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The most annoying part of getting your nails done, is sitting in a salon chair for 45 minutes to get your nails done. We do it for the end game: shiny, polished fingernails that didn’t require us actually picking up a tiny bottle of paint and attempting the DIY manicure. But, wouldn’t it be cool if there was a way for you to get your nails polished in just a few minutes, cutting out the shaping and filing, if you’re short on time?

Well, a nail-painting robot might be your answer. Clockwork, a San Francisco-based nail tech startup that launched back in March of this year, recently took up a residence at New York’s Rockefeller Center, and I stopped by for an $8 “minicure,” the robot-engineered manicure that only takes about 10 minutes start to finish.

First, I met with Clockwork cofounder Renuka Apte along with mechanical engineer Chris Masterson. They walked me through the Clockwork system, describing the bot as an express nail service, designed to make getting a coat of nail polish as simple as ordering a cup of coffee.

The machinery itself looks a little bit like a giant espresso machine with a cushion armrest and chair placed in front of it. Before I sit down, though, I have to pick a polish color. As of now, as the technology is still in the beta-testing phase, there are just ten curated shades to pick from. All of the color options are what the founders call “tried and true” polish formulations that have been tested and proven to work within the Clockwork robot. There are a few shades from Essie, some from China Glaze. I eventually land on OPI Infinite Shine in the shade Big Apple Red.

Once I’m seated in front of the Clockwork, I insert my individual polish cartridge — which contains about 1 mL of Big Apple Red — into the machine, click the door closed, and then place my forearm on the armrest and my hand on the handgrip inside the machine. “The hand rest is to keep your hand stabilized so you keep your nail stabilized so that when the robot goes to paint, it can really create that sub-millimeter precision and allow the dispense rate of the polish to be perfectly controlled, so you’re getting an even coat in one application,” Apte explains as I carefully place my thumb upright for the polish application.

The robot works nail by nail, and each takes about 30 seconds. You do have to keep your hand still, or else the robot could miss a spot, or end up painting a smidge outside your cuticle. This happened to my thumb (I was admittedly a little shaky from my second cup of coffee). But there was a nail-polish remover pad on hand and I was able to easily get a quick do over. While there’s no fan or drying technology attached to the robot, quick-dry drops were applied straight on top of my completed manicure, which made the red polish firm up so that I could grab my bag and use my phone.

That’s part of the robot’s appeal, it’s not too precious. “This is so fast and cheap that you could change your polish every day if you want,” explains Masterson. As for eventual scaling and distribution — or where you can find a Clockwork machine to try it yourself — that’s still TBD. “We’re looking into retail partners, airports, hotels, apartment complexes, and possibly corporate buildings,” Apte says. She adds that the goal of Clockwork is not replace nail salons, but instead serve as an alternative, on-the-go option.

As of now, there are only four total Clockwork machines in the world, two are located in San Francisco and are open for 10-minute, $8 appointments, which anyone in the Bay Area can book on the Clockwork site. The machine currently sitting in the employee’s lounge at 30 Rock is not open to the general public quite yet. There’s still a ways to go in terms of scaling and manufacturing the technology. But hey, it’s a startup — and there is a growth trajectory. “The hope is to eventually have a Clockwork whenever you are, so you don’t have to go to it,” explains Masterson of the company’s vision. Which means it might not be too long before there’s a Clockwork nail bot in the Delta lounge at JFK, or even your own office lobby.

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