The new Facebook HQ on Hacker Way (yep, that’s the real address) plays host to a vending machine. Sounds normal, right? But these hooks and shelves don’t sell the obvious selection of drinks, but something far more vital to the social media service’s employees: “Paying” with their company ID, employees can use this handy helper to grab a new charger, USB flash drive, keyboard or headset in order to get straight back to work and avoid any procurement delays.

Around the world and across the globe, high-tech vending machines make our lives that little bit easier – most people’s days include a fleeting touchscreen interaction. Replacing gum and cigarettes with worthier fare, today’s devices tend to dispense a range of fun curiosities and truly helpful on-the-go supplies, ranging from iPhones, cocktail dresses and cupcakes (USA) to oxygen (!), umbrellas, milk and batteries (in Japan). But why this return to automatic vending machines? Ease of use certainly comes into play: After all, many locations benefit from no-fuss 24/7 access, e. g. Mount Fuji with its smart vending machine solution to spontaneous oxygen deprivation at dizzying heights.

To most readers, it should come as no great surprise that Nippon lays claim to the emotional roots of this trend – after all, the Japanese love to indulge their playful streak. Tiny, unmanned helpers flank entire streets in Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. Bathing street canyons in a soft neon glow, they symbolise constant availability, freshness and a matter-of-fact approach to consumption. At the time of writing, the land that spawned Godzilla et al. boasted more than five and a half million machines – or one for every 23 citizens. Although this replaces the quick chat at the corner shop, it also helps to avoid inevitable moments of modern rudeness that arise when we try to juggle a mobile phone call with gestures directed at a confused salesperson. After all, vending machines tend to have an infinitely higher tolerance when it comes to social faux pas and stumped interactions.

At Tokyo’s Shinagawa station, high-tech vending machines capture approaching prospective clients on camera and quickly process these fleeting images to determine their approximate age and gender. Before these customers pass the device, it displays a drink to match their anticipated preferences and the location’s weather conditions. Still a relatively new addition to the vending landscape, these machines have already proven a hit.

People enjoy automated purchases as they turn electronic shopping into a real-time experience, much faster than the traditional online route via smartphone & co with its inevitable delivery delays. For example, should you get a craving for freshly baked cake in Chicago at 2am, simply take your PJ-clad self down to Walton Street and a tiny, pink machine by Sprinkles for one of the brand’s delicious cupcakes, available 24/7 – the perfect antidote to an extended Nintendo adventure. And yet, the inevitable question rears its head: Are people buying cake because of an impromptu nocturnal craving for baked goods – or simply because there is a cupcake vending machine on display?

Such machines might soon replace many business models and reshape entire street layouts as we spend more and more time on the move and doing (=consuming) more and more things throughout the day by non-physical means. In this vein, it would hardly make sense to get a book or jacket delivered to your home address when you are two continents away on a midnight date; so, electronic kiosks can be excellent companions for the mobile cosmopolitan’s everyday meanderings. Sounds like a gift from the future? Well, it’s not quite as extreme (yet) as Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s animated series Futurama might suggest with its two hilarious examples of this burgeoning trend: cash-only crack machines and ubiquitous suicide cells (see slide show).

So, what exactly are the advantages of unmanned sales units over a charming corner shop or two? Well, beyond the flexible availability of cake, umbrellas and the latest gadgets as an electronic answer to our civilised ramifications, these business models open up new distribution channels and thus useful opportunities: Think medical vending machines for prescriptions in dense urban areas, inner tube sales points (replete with pump) on scenic routes for the restless and sporty among us or, for me, a shoelace machine right in my hallway and, on Sundays, a vending machine with recommendations for suitable presents for women in their late twenties. Sometimes it is simply fun to approach our quotidian existence and tasks in a more playful manner.

So, these machines virtualise our lives and hybridise our everyday consumption patterns. And while video games get more realistic with every iteration, our surroundings, in turn, take on a decidedly game-like appearance: Wherever you go and look, people are tapping or stroking screens, on the streets or at a nearby station, navigating through thoughtfully designed menus to call up a huge range of articles with comprehensive visual documentation. Whether this is all about instant gratification of existing needs or about the artificial creation of such desires is becoming increasingly hard to determine. Nevertheless, well-designed and positioned solutions can help to make our lives that little bit easier.

Some designers have already understood the primal attraction of this retro, yet novel consumption channel and come up with their own reinterpretations. The Mondrian South Beach Hotel, for example, gives a luxury version pride of place. Those in possession of a very forgiving credit card can use the unit’s touchscreen to order a designer outfit plus matching sports car for a rousing night out à la Tony Stark. Who needs video games when you can go for the dream made real?

Against this background, these modern magic boxes not only satisfy our basic – or base – needs, but also give us something to play with in our mundane everyday lives. I, for one, am still hoping for Banksy to install a spray can dispenser in Central London. Maybe someone could alert him to this feature?