New smartphones from Apple, Nokia, Samsung and others are poised to hit the market in time for the holiday buying season. Come January there will be a lot of obsolete gadgets looking for new homes. Some of these devices will make their way to retail buy-back and trade-in programs while others will be shipped to new owners by way of e-Bay, Gazelle or some other Web site.

A new option may have even more appeal by offering sellers the ability to deposit last year's favorite digital accessories at an ATM-like kiosk in return for cash on the spot. If the device is too old or damaged to be of value, the seller can at least leave the hardware behind for recycling.

The ecoATM relies on a combination of computer vision and artificial intelligence to automatically analyze and bid for unwanted smartphones and mp3 players. The device's owner places it in a chamber in the front of the kiosk, which identifies the device by taking high-resolution color images and cross-referencing them against a database of about 4,000 gadgets. The ecoATM also uses those images to determine whether a device has superficial scratches, cracks or other damage that might affect its value.

The ecoATM can accurately identify devices 97.5 percent of the time, according to the company, which has received funding from the National Science Foundation, Coinstar, Claremont Creek Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank. Once the machine identifies the device in question, it is then plugged into the ecoATM via a cable—it has 23 of them to accommodate different electronics—so the machine can assess the device's electrical and mechanical condition. The machine then makes an offer and can dispense cash. Some customers have received up to $360 for a single device and a few corporate customers have recycled in bulk and received more $5,000.

Given how closely certain smartphone models resemble one another and the difficulty in determining whether damage to a device is superficial or serious, the ecoATM needed a sophisticated machine vision system, says Mark Bowles, co-founder and chief marketing officer of the eponymously named San Diego-based company that makes the kiosks. The process of determining specific damage comes after identifying a device and is accomplished with software that can examine digital images of the device taken from a number of different angles using a variety of lighting techniques, he adds.

"We don't want to confuse a fingerprint with a crack so we use one technique to highlight any fingerprints then remove them mathematically from the final evaluation," Bowles says. "We use another technique to determine whether a flaw we see on the screen is limited to the glass only or if the actual LCD is broken." Whereas glass is a relatively inexpensive fix during a refurbishment process, a busted LCD is usually must more expensive or fatal for the device, he adds.

To help prevent thieves using ecoATMs to fence stolen goods, each seller must present a government-issued ID that the kiosk scans and verifies. The kiosk then asks each seller for a fingerprint. "We also get the serial number, device description and a variety of other information that is then uploaded into a variety of law enforcement databases used to search for any reported stolen items," Bowles says. If there is a match, the seller can be identified and reported to law enforcement.

If the seller is deemed legit, the ecoATM awards each device a grade, ranging from "perfect" to "end of life," based upon its automated analysis. Typically, the kiosk will offer at least some cash for every device it assesses, whether or not it's working. "Our hope is that people give us their end-of-life phones instead of taking them home again," which means they'll likely end up in a landfill, says Bowles, whose company has arrangements with electronics buyers that refurbish the gadgets or use them for spare parts. The seller is responsible for deleting all personal information from a device before trading it in or recycling it with ecoATM.

Many of the phones go to insurance and warranty replacement companies or to direct-to-consumer sellers who use eBay, Overstock and other Web sites to hock them. "The other 25 percent that we can't find a home for go to materials reclamation where roughly a dollar of precious metals are reclaimed and the toxic stuff is kept out of landfills," Bowles says, adding that his company is certified to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-recognized Responsible Recycling and ISO 14001 standards that govern the handling of electronic waste.

EcoATM has more than 150 kiosks to date, mostly in California, and the company estimates it has collected more than 500,000 devices. More recently the company has expanded to the Washington, D.C., area and plans to expand throughout the East Coast. Bowles hopes to have 300 in total by mid-November and to add about 1,000 more in 2013. Although the kiosks primarily handle smartphones and mp3 players, the company this week began testing tablet reclamation in some machines.

Image courtesy of ecoATM