Retail technology, that personal touch

6 mins read

Could the retail industry be on the verge of a revolution in technology? Laura Hopperton reports.

The retail industry has undergone significant changes in recent years in a bid to keep up with the latest consumer demands and still turn a profit. As one of the fastest moving industries, retail is in a constant battle to meet the needs of the demanding 21st Century shopper, who now has more choice than ever before. One of the major advances in the sector in recent years is of course the introduction of internet shopping. Despite early concerns over security, the UK's internet shopping industry is now worth an estimated £100billion a year, with people increasingly eager to take advantage of the flexibility and convenience of shopping from home. Now, prototypes aimed at blending the traditional bricks and mortar experience with internet enabled shopping are set to revolutionise the retail industry. In what is being dubbed as 'retail theatre', companies from around the world are looking at ways to get customers back on the high street. Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute are working on a prototype system that will enable passers by to operate window displays with hand and facial gestures. According to research fellow Paul Chojecki, this means people will be able to point at garments in the store and have them projected onto the store window in a vivid 3d display, without the need for special glasses. They will then be able to view them in different colours and at different angles by rotating them through 360°. They will even be able to purchase them after hours using Near Field Communication technology. "Retailers' store fronts are arguably their most valuable asset and this new prototype means they could make much more of them," said Chojecki, who claims the window will offer a 'revolutionary shopping experience'. "The interactive store window will let retailers use their store fronts as a giant catalogue, allowing passers by to view products in store and purchase goods after hours." The Fraunhofer Institute is working on a prototype system that will enable passers by to operate window displays with hand and facial gestures. Although interactive shopping has been standard on the web for a long time, the Fraunhofer team is putting this technology into pedestrian passageways and shopping centres, with the entire unit behind the window. "The technology not only identifies how many people are in front of it," Chojecki continued, "it can also suggest, on the basis of the gathered data, what products and information the people passing by are interested in." The system comprises four small infrared cameras which continually record the 3d positions of the hands, faces and eyes of persons in front of the window. Two of these stereo cameras record the face and eyes, while the other two record the motion of the hands. Image processing then recognises these gestures, calculates the coordinates and transforms them into the corresponding inputs for selecting goods to view. Anyone interested can also be shown product information such as colour, material, price, availability and information about the manufacturer. The system is designed to be compatible with all displays, so shop owners can select any size or type of monitor. Beyond this, they can link the system with any software already in place, such as content management or merchandise information systems, enabling them to display all of their stock at any given time. "There's nothing comparable in Germany yet and today shops only use touchscreens in shop windows, if at all," said Chojecki. "But, you can interact with our shop window without any physical contact, which is also a benefit if hygiene is important to you." The interactive store window is debuting at this year's CeBit Fair, with mainstream application predicted in 2012. Meanwhile, Intel has also made a bid for the interactive shopping market with the launch of its Connected Store. The 2,400sq ft retail store front of the future, launched at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in January, relies on Intel's digital signage technology and embedded Intel Core i7 and Atom processors to measure, track and interact with customers. The proof of concept consists of three screens – two back to back lcds and a transparent, touch enabled holographic screen which supports augmented reality like shopping experiences. According to Intel, as users approach the screen, it recognises their presence using anonymous video analytics – technology that provides metrics on shoppers trends, demographics and shopping patterns to enable retailers to provide personalised experiences and relevant value added services to shoppers. The technology can even identify a person's height and gender to adjust the content appropriately. Tags on the screen point to items that are physically behind the glass, but users can also click on a store view to access anything they wish on different levels of the shop. Similar to Fraunhofer's prototype, users can then click on the items to enlarge them, select different colours, zoom them and rotate them. Once an account is set up, either in store or online, users press 'send to mobile' and all the information is sent via Bluetooth before they can make a purchase at the checkout. "This innovative retail solution is designed to meet the changing needs of tomorrow's marketplace by promoting brand interaction and delivering a more personalised and enjoyable shopping experience," said Jose Avalos, general manager of Intel's embedded computing division. "The interactive technology illustrates how retailers are able to reduce energy consumption, lower total cost of ownership and increase profits with features such as remote manageability and anonymous video analytics." Global brands Best Buy, Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble have signed on as launch partners, while Adidas has partnered with Intel on its AdiVerse Virtual Footwear Wall, which acts as an extension of the product displays. In this approach, shoes will be shown on a shelf, but virtually. Powered by second Generation Intel Core i7 processors and taking advantage of Intel's AIM Suite and vPro technology, the footwear wall features precision high quality, 3d rendered images. The AdiVERSE vitrual footwear wall uses high quality 3d images as an extension of product displays. The interactive, real time rendered product installation was created with branding, digital and retail agency Start JudgeGill to allow Adidas to offer a large range of products, in even the smallest stores. The prototype, unveiled at the 2011 National Retail Confederation exhibition in New York, is not only age and gender aware, it also puts the displayed products in the context of the sport the product is designed for, in a bid to drive deeper levels of brand and product engagement. Built in anonymous video analytics enable Adidas to provide personalised experiences and relevant value added services to shoppers. Intel's Connected Store technology has also extended beyond shop windows into stores in the form of the LuminAR Project for Best Buy, America's largest consumer electronics company. Intel collaborated on the project with research company MIT Media Lab to create an immersive shopping experience for Best Buy customers. Using Intel Atom technology, project leader Natan Linder designed a compact projector camera system that responds to hand gestures and can interpret multiple touches. "The LuminAR Bulb is an integrated system that includes all the components required and just assumes power and wireless," said Linder. "The bulb is installed on an articulated robotic arm that allows dynamic projection in different location in space. We wanted to show what an augmented product counter might look like in the future and what kind of experience it can support." Although Intel says the integration of the technology is still a few years off, it believes that it proves the opportunities for using sensors, cameras and voice recognition to make everyday objects 'intelligent' are almost endless. Leading UK department store Selfridges is currently working on a prototype for its flagship Oxford Street store to highlight its campaign to promote sustainable fishing. According to windows manager Sarah McCullough, the Totaliser Window – due to be unveiled in May – will project a display that invites passers by to make a donation towards the cause via text message. Once a donation has been made, a 'fish' is released into a giant led ocean bed in the store window. Although the integration of such shopping technology is new, the concept is anything but. In 2007, Orange launched the UK's first 'hands off' interactive window in London's Carnaby Street. Designed in collaboration with The Alternative, the window used gesture based technology to allow users to check news, watch music videos or film trailers, play games and interact with a range of content from the Orange World Mobile portal. In the same year, Inwindow Outdoor collaborated with supermodel Elle Macpherson on an interactive window for her lingerie store, Intimates. Passers by could control a looped video of the model sporting her latest collection using hand and body movements, captured via motion reactive technology. The New York design company has since created augmented reality/digital/gesture recognition/3d store fronts for more than 1000 customers and has won several awards for its innovative advertising solutions. Although some consumers will continue to vote in favour of a more traditional, personable way of shopping, the technology could offer a significant step towards a digital revolution for the industry, with retailers limited only by their imagination and of course, their budget. However, there are drawbacks, including security and overcrowding issues. It is also worth considering whether the investment in new technology will lead to a significant enough return for retailers, who are already suffering from what has been the worst recession in many years. It begs the question; will more traditional retailers be able to keep up? Will they want to? For Manchester based Start JudgeGill, the technology is something to be excited about. "We believe the future of retailing lies in bringing together the best of digital media, interactivity and product presentation to offer extraordinary and complementary retail experiences in store," said company director Dave Judge. "Innovations such as the AdiVerse wall will not only drive sales, but will also change the face of retailing radically and the way in which consumers interact with retail brands and their products." Whether the retail industry is ready for such a digital transformation remains to be seen, but what is clear, as Microsoft director Peter Haynes recently asserted, 'whether we like it or not, we are moving from an era in which we think about computers as devices with screens and keyboards, to an era in which the computer has become invisible and pervasive in our lives'.