Saturday, May 10, 2014

A New Age of Printed Makeup?: Mink at Techcrunch Disrupt

Techcrunch Disrupt, a conference focusing on "disruptive" technological inventions, consistently features a bunch of funky startups. Many of the innovations, from a water heater that will offer constant hot water and also randomly has wifi for some reason (ISI Technology) to a contextual search engine (Vurb) are potential game changers for the way we interact with machines. It's not a water heater, though, that has the makeup-world salivating.

Grace Choi, a Harvard buisiness-school grad who describes herself as a "serial inventor", is the brainpower behind Mink, a makeup concept that's about as disruptive as it gets. She explains in her TechCrunch presentation, "Mink is a desktop printer that prints makeup. It can take any image and instantly transform it into a wearable color cosmetic."

An imagination of how the printer might look.
All photos are screenshots from the TechCrunch presentation.

Choi says, "I wanted to make a makeup product and what I found out was the makeup industry makes a whole lot of money on a whole lot of bullshit. And they do this by charging a huge premium on one thing that technology provides for free. And that one thing... is color!"

She cites sale volumes as the principle reason that drugstores offer such limited selection for color products. She claims that Mink can offer the selection of prestige color cosmetics with the convenience of mass-produced drugstore colors. "As a matter of fact," she says, "I'm beating the selection of Prestige because I'm giving you the selection of the internet and I'm beating the convenience of mass because I'm giving you the convenience of your own freaking house." She adds, "We're going to live in a world where you can just take a picture of your friend's lipstick and just print it out."

For her presentation, Choi whipped up a 'proof of concept prototype' to demonstrate that her ideas are more than theoretical.

She pulls up a Michelle Phan tutorial and grabs the hex code for a pink eyeshadow that the beauty guru was displaying. Choi explains that no fancy software is needed for the product to work: "All you need is a color picker to copy the hex code and any software to print." (She does her presentation using photoshop.)



She presses print and, after a few moments of delay, out pops a vibrant pink shadow.


She swatches it on her hand...


…and shows that it can easily be popped into a portable compact.



Choi says that the initial retail price for the Mink printer will be about $300, and the "substrates" (the non-colorful part of the makeup) and the ink will be "commodity-priced, so they are very accessible", adding, "per unit, the pricing is going to be much lower [than Sephora]."

Because it's based on the "mature technology" of the inkjet printer, Choi feels confident that manufacturing will be feasible.

Choi claims her target market is girls aged 13-21, since their makeup habits are as-of-yet unformed. She feels her product will be empowering to this audience, as it will show that "the definition of beauty is something [girls] should be able to control, not our corporations."

Although her presentation is undeniably snazzy, I'd be lying if I said I don't have significant reservations, and I definitely don't believe that the product will replace anyone's Sephora pilgrimage.

A hex code is well and good, but it's fundamentally misleading to pretend that makeup is exclusively about a single matte shade. A hex code sure as hell won't give you eyeshadow with shimmer, glitter, or duochromes. She claims her product will ultimately be able to print products like cream foundations, but there's so much variety in texture there it's borderline absurd. Foundations range from from thick, full coverage paints that are as matte as hell to dewey, sheer finishes… and that's not even touching extra fancy shit like cream-to-powder finishes. I don't understand how she thinks she will be able to pull off the range available at Sephora using mere hex codes.

She also misses on the demonstration of quality. She seems to believe that all cosmetics are identical save for the color used as inspiration, which is a clear falsehood. Her swatched product has super weak pigmentation and isn't even close to the hex code color she selected! People don't buy neutral palettes at Sephora because they can't find the color "brown" in the drugstore. They buy them because there is a noticeable and meaningful difference in quality. If she does not understand that, I don't see how she can make cosmetics that are objectively good. There's something to be said for having had a testing process before the cosmetics end up in your hands.

Additionally, I am confused about the nature of the inks she is using. She is suggesting that all her color additives are FDA-approved, but it is not clarified whether or not she is separating out eye- and lip-approved color additives. It's also not clear how she expects to offer every color imaginable, since some colors are not really producible using only FDA-approved pigments. (E.g. Urban Decay didn't choose to use non-eye-approved color additives in their recent Electric Palette just to bug you.)

Finally, I think she misunderstands who her audience really is. No 13-year-old is buying a $300 machine. If she is selling to 13-year-olds, she is selling to parents. Really, though, she should be looking at ladies in their 20s as a primary marketplace. It's an audience with (at least some) money. It's an audience who probably has $300 to their name, anyways. It's also an audience who wants to experiment and have fun with the shit they put on their faces. A 13-year-old's parents would likely have some degree of restriction on what makeup they allow. I'm adult and I can wear green lipstick and eat ice cream for breakfast if I want.

These are all points a makeup-savy person would have been able to ask about during the Q&A following Choi's presentation. Sadly, the all-male panel ended up using that time to clarify if there were different types of makeup that exist (e.g. foundation vs. eyeshadow), and whether or not those products need to be mixed.

Not the right people to be asking questions.
Despite my concerns, I have really high hopes for this printer. I think its greatest potential is for populations who are underserved for foundation colors. In particular, women of color have a motherfucker of a time finding foundations, looking at brands that don't even approach an acceptable range on the darker end of the spectrum. A friend of mine recently confessed that she was afraid to go get color-matched at Sephora because she was worried that nothing in the store would match her skin tone. Many foundations also fail to reach the truly fair-skinned shades. (Still, they'd definitely need the hex codes to be printing more accurately than they did in Choi's demo for this to be effective.) I also think that creating other makeup shades would be fun, as long as the quality is acceptable. If it actually comes out, I'll probably buy it. Maybe I can finally get my much-coveted dupe of Chanel Notorious.

I was surprised (and impressed) to see that Choi is already using existing media structures to create buzz for her product by using referral links to grant early access to the product. So: If you want to be notified when the Mink printer is released, you are welcome to use my referral link by clicking here.

40 comments:

  1. I had the same reservations about pigmentation, quality, and ability to replicate various textures. I think it's kitschy to say the least and if I want a little pan to print for fun, at will, with the quality of LA Colors- I guess Mink type I is the way to go.

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    1. I definitely don't intend to diminish the achievement of her invention, I just don't think it's at the level she is suggesting.

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  2. Yes, my thoughts exactly on the pigmentation/different products/different colours/pricing/target audience/all-male panel.

    But I look forward to seeing how it turns out.

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  3. I heard about this and went "Huh. I'm going to wait to see what Robyn has to say, because I know i'll get a good analysis of the quality, feasibility, etc" and lo and behold, you delivered. Thanks for your thoughts on this!

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  4. You raise some very good points. I'm interested to see how this will play out.

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    1. Hopefully it will be produced and we will see!

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  5. I had the same reservations when I watched her presentation. The concept is awesome, but I think she oversimplified how she would need to execute her project. I disagree with her idea that color is the main reason why make-up prices are jacked up. It's beyond color-- every company practically has a nude palette, but as a consumer, I'd spend the extra dollars to get longer wear and better pigmentation. (And this is just eyeshadow we're talking about. The game changes when it comes to foundations.)

    I think she missed another very important issue about make-up. One major reason why companies can mark-up their cosmetic products is quality. Companies can claim how their make-up contains x "natural" ingredients that would improve your skin, etc. Think Amazonian Clay from Tarte, or some diamond-infused ?blush. Whether these claims are legit is a whole new discussion. But these claims aside, there IS a difference between using foundation from an inexpensive drug-store brand and from say, Tarte. Some cheaper products clog my pores, and some more expensive ones don't. I don't see how this issue can be addressed if the main focus of Mink is simply "cheaper" production of make-up, without any consideration of what "things" go into that make-up.

    Conceptually, I can see how the "quality" issue can be addressed. There can be a world where production is done at home through Mink, but the substrates you have to buy from specific make-up companies. Does Amazonian Clay float your boat? Then buy the substrates from Tarte. This doesn't address the original goal (of beating cosmetic companies), but I think that quality is simply an issue you can't ignore when it comes to make-up.

    P.S. I really enjoy reading your blog posts. :)

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    1. That would be fascinating if the makeup world went in that direction! Mink would have to really take off, though.

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  6. you raise great points........ but.... but i still want it immediately. :)

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    1. Hopefully it will be released and you will be able to buy it!

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  7. So, you know all those nifty paint commercials where you can scan ANYTHING and come out of the store with magical, one-coat coverage paint? A lot of that is marketing bullshit.

    The scanners have come a long, long way, but I still honestly need a solid color swatch the size of a dime. Most fabrics, or anything with a sheen that has a different color from the base, is still not going to scan accurately. And then there's the end product in the paint. Lighter colors can be mixed in a white base with zinc oxide. Lights, neutrals, and grays can be mixed using pigments that are opaque. Your bright, vivid colors? Use translucent pigments, and I don't care what that latest commercial told you, if you want a magenta room in your house, you're going to be slapping on more than one coat.

    Why is this relevent? This technology for paint tinting has been around for...at least twenty years, now? (I've been using it for ten.) They keep improving it by leaps and bounds, but I still can't make you a perfect copy of your burgundy satin throw pillow with good coverage. I still can't scan anything and turn it into a translucent stain. I can't have high hopes for a similar concept in makeup, because I can already see where the problems are going to be. (They're not going to be identical, because the products aren't, but certain things will be similar. Like magenta is problematic in paint, yellows/purples are problematic in many color cosmetics, for instance.)

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    1. That is a really good point! I actually haven't seen the paint scanners in action, but you are right that there is an extra layer of complexity for makeup products with just as many potential pitfalls.

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  8. As someone with a graphic design/illustration background I have to say I wasn't shocked when the color came out completely different

    Hex codes are not the spectrum you should be printing with if you want it to match exactly what you see on screen. It's just, not how printing works. I get her whole schtick is "PRINT ALL THE COLORS" but it's just not feasible with the technology she's presenting. Blues and greens are notoriously tricky to print, and that's WITH a print appropriate spectrum.

    Honestly if she wants this to be able to print colors accurately maybe she should partner with Pantone. God freakin' knows they need something else to partner with (I say this with so much shame as I own so much pantone branded shit now, gah)

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  9. Those were my exact thoughts. Does she even wear much makeup herself? Anyone who is actually into beauty would realize the biggest draw when it comes to cosmetics is not always the color per se, but the formula (and all that comes with it: texture, pigmentation, finish, longevity, etc.) Yes, you can print out any color. That's awesome, it really is, but what about the other variants? And what if the quality is crap? Which it seems to be because the pigmentation in her demo is abysmal. The swatch looks NOTHING like the hex code she chose initially.
    Makeup brands obviously won't be willing to give up their formula, so she would have to develop her own formulas through a traditional method in a chemistry lab. Specially if she wants to offer variety: shimmer, matte, frosty, duo chrome, dewy, satin, glitter, etc. All of this will be costly and I am most certain that, if this project continues to be pursued, that $300 price tag will increase.

    I also agree with the issues in terms of target audience. Anyone who's interested in the concept of printing ANY color of eyeshadow can be assumed to be a beauty lover/enthusiast, makeup artist, etc. Those people WILL be concerned about quality. Someone who doesn't really care about a makeup item's quality, usually doesn't spend more than $10 on an item so they certainly would not be spending $300 on a machine that can print out eyeshadow.

    This is the most important issue for me and I can't believe how few people have mentioned it or addressed it since I've seen this popping up everywhere in my social media feeds:
    "People don't buy neutral palettes at Sephora because they can't find the color "brown" in the drugstore. They buy them because there is a noticeable and meaningful difference in quality. If she does not understand that, I don't see how she can make cosmetics that are objectively good."

    I love the idea, but it needs a lot of work. Great post.

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    1. I'm guessing that she is a casual-but-regular makeup wearer. She seemed to miss on a few important points, but I can't imagine that she would invent a makeup machine if she literally does not wear makeup, haha.

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  10. I think you guys are taking the marketing words too literally. Think of this as a pitch of a tech concept, not a particular product. The technology she's selling is the relatively cheap ability for someone to clone makeup colors - she's not going to worry about the quality of the carrier material (eye shadow base, lipstick creaminess, etc) because she won't HAVE to. The concept alone will sell, and then the makeup companies will (in theory) no longer be able to use proprietary colors as a draw - they will have to rely on selling the quality of their base carrier material.

    There are already plenty of eye and lip certified base materials- that isn't going to be a big deal. Wet n Wild can sell lipstick for less than a buck - the material isn't expensive or hard to come by. People can take individual components and make great makeup for relatively cheap in their own homes. The ability to play with color will just be an added benefit.

    And at first, when it's still in the early stage of having a mediocre or even crappy carrier BUT the ability to have ALL the colors, "pirating" colors the way you pirate music, the teenage market IS going to be her best target at first. More lured by sweet vast variety, less inclined to make high quality formulation a top priority, not unlike drugstore cosmetic branding. Sure, the parents will spend the money the way the parents once bought their kids ipods. They don't have to advertise to the parents when teens/college students are perfectly able to share a link on an amazon wish list. The parents don't have to 'get it'. And I actually love how she touched on both people of color (how hard it can be to find colors not targeting a white market) and people who want nontraditional color makeup (green lipstick, etc). No paternalistic corporation dictating which colors you have easy access to. That's a great angle, and especially the latter point hitting home with the age group she's targeting.

    The next stage of this is when the makeup companies have to respond. How can they either beat or join the lure of cheap and easy color cloning? It IS just like paint mixing at Sears - the colors are the same whether you mix them with the nice Behr paints or the cheap ass store brand. So the makeup companies will market "blank" eyeshadow and lipstick substrate to be used with the any-color technology. They have to sell their product based on quality of formulation - not color, which can now easily be cloned. Or they have to license the technology (actually they probably already use something similar) to sell their own "cloning kits" or whatever it will end up to be called. They can then start advertising "your favorite organic/non pore cloging/cruelty free formulation - with an infinite number of custom colors at your fingertips" or whatever.

    So if you completely hate the eye shadow quality in the demo, just realize that doesn't matter. What matters is that anything relatively recognizable as a pink eyeshadow came out, and the concept WILL improve and through competition will evolve into a new way to access color. Duochromes, creams, foils, etc - all in wave 2, or 3, or 4 - but the initial seed of making a custom palette based on a pretty picture/your best friend's new nail polish/famous work of art? Super cool.

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    1. I hope that you are right! And I would expect that the quality will increase with testing. It just worries me that she doesn't address the issue and seems to think it does not matter (based on her explanation of why someone would shop at Sephora). I also disagree with you here-- "There are already plenty of eye and lip certified base materials- that isn't going to be a big deal. Wet n Wild can sell lipstick for less than a buck - the material isn't expensive or hard to come by." There are colors we cannot make for eyes vs lips using FDA-approved pigments. Neons are the best example. My neon makeup is non-FDA approved for eyes. I feel safe with that, but she can't produce it to sell.

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  11. I completely agree with the points you've raised here, and aside from the non-FDA-approved pigments, there are also other hygiene concerns. Traditional printers = a nice warm void for the dust to live in, so I'm not sure I'd want stuff coming from there to go near my eyes. It's definitely an interesting concept, but not a consumer product by itself.

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    1. There would definitely have to be an easy way to clean everything!

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  12. When I first saw this, I'll admit I was overjoyed by the draw of maybe one day being able to actually duplicate my skin tone for foundations and powders--the eyeshadow thing barely registered. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed but, yeah, obviously this needs some work.

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    1. That's what I am most hopeful about. Once you find your color, you will be set!

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  13. Yeah, I mean, I can conceivably, and with little effort, make any lipstick color I want using crayola and some oils, but I don't because the quality is rubbish. I think something like MINK would really only appeal to me if there was some way to design and control our own substrates/formulas, and control the size and form of the make-up made (I wanna print blushes with silver cats on them, yo, or make 1-2 use thin "sample" swatches). Plus, if I had a nickel for every time a printer or computer screen misrepresented a color...

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    1. Seriously, if quality is not the draw, then the customization has to be really, well, customizable. You can already buy near any color of product for pretty darn cheap (BH cosmetics and Coastal Scents, to name a few). But how cute would it be to design and create unique looking blushes, shadows and lip pans with your friend's initials or favorite animal stamped in or re-created in shimmery brushstrokes over the top? I COULD FINALLY MAKE COSMETICS SHAPED LIKE EACH PONY'S CUTIEMARK FROM MLP and also other important reasons. Even people who aren't hardcore about make-up but lurve crafts would eat that up.

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    2. Huh. I wonder how feasible that would be!

      And I definitely agree that sample swatches would be indispensable.

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  14. I agree with everything you said about the product (and had those same thoughts when I saw this last week) but the entire women of colour have a motherfucker of a time comment, I will tell you what I tell my girlfriend all the time when she bitches about so few options for foundation for her gorgeous chocolate shaded skin. Yes, they have few brands that cater to you, but there ARE BRANDS that cater to you. I am glow in the dark white. The WHITE GIRL makeup doesn't cater to me! Chanel and Clinique both have discontinued the lines that had shades light enough for me and so far I am pretty much SOL. NARS has a shade that ALMOST works for me and I make it work. That being said, yes, I need a shade to match me. Would I buy this? NOT LIKELY. I cant begin to imagine the shoddy quality of the makeup it would print.

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    1. Not all women of color are black--for those of us who are Native American, Latinas, Asians, Middle Easterners etc---there can be very very few options for foundations, etc. My skin is too dark for the white girl lines and too pale for the makeup lines that cater to women to women of African descent. Thank the makeup gods for Kat Von D, which is literally the only line I've ever found that works for me.

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    2. There are a few different brands (e.g. MAC, Illamasqua) that make a pure white foundation for mixing, which seems like the easiest way to deal if most foundations are not light enough.

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    3. It is really not fair to suggest that fair skinned ladies have a more difficult time finding foundation than women of color. That's incredible dismissive.

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  15. Re: your quest for a dupe for Chanel Notorious, I have three dupes or semi-dupes for it that I picked up after Temptalia reviewed it. All three are eyeshadows; one is NARS Lhasa, which is the only one that came from the list of similar shades she provided and the one I use the most for actual contouring. The others are Studio Gear (an Ulta brand) Golden Smoke shadow single and Origins Eye Zing cream shadow in Perkle. (I have been wearing the last as an actual shadow lately and fallen back in love with it, especially since I finally broke down and ordered the Nude Pink Color Tattoo from last fall off eBay and they are amazeballs together.)

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    1. Have you tried Notorious? I get antsy about dupes in general.

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    2. They don't look particularly close in side-by-side swatches.

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  16. Yay, so glad to see your post on this! Another thing I was thinking about is packaging. A hex code isn't going to give you a cute lipstick tube or palette case.

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    1. That would definitely be sacrificed, but if the quality was there I don't think most people would mind. I might mind. But most people, haha.

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  17. I had the same reservations, even as I'm excited by the thought of printing out custom shades - the invention is cool, but she does not really know anything about the variety of makeup textures and formulations. Cosmetic companies don't just have ink - they have pigments, chemists, color experts and makeup artists working together to make wearable shades. I'm a makeup artist and I can make a bright blue "Hex" type color work, but someone at home will be printing out a lot of junk shades that don't look that good on her. Though maybe Sephora will have an instore version where the "substrates" are different formulas.

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    1. That is one thing I don't mind-- I am pretty happy wearing unconventional makeup shades. ;) A teenager might be missing some of the skill to make that work, though.

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  18. Haha, I wrote pretty much the exact same thing about this (http://www.paperdroids.com/2014/05/09/mink-lets-3d-print-shade-makeup-using-home-computer/). That colour swatch is...NOT GOOD. The saturation is terrible, it's not even really a match for the colour. I really wasn't very impressed, though I like the idea in theory.

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