2011.41 | Views of the Future

Microsoft’s Vision – I love this future looking view of productivity from Microsoft Office.  Everything is squeaky clean, everything works together, and somehow the wifi at the hotel doesn’t require a code and is faster than dial-up.  All joking aside, it’s a really well made video, and provides some great vision into how things could pan out in the future.  The hard part from a retail technology perspective is making all of this work together seamlessly. That, and people are going to have to learn a lot of new touch gestures! (via Gizmodo)

BMW – BMW’s 300 series are going to have a full colour Heads up Display in 2012.  Consider this an alpha release of the cool computer screens on the car windows on the Microsoft offering.   If you think about it, it also fits the vision of having shopping available in cars as you have seen in future posts.  While voice commands are making great leaps through technologies like Siri, the visual plays a role as well.  The challenge here is not overwhelming safety tools with sales messages.

inPulse smartwatch – There are a few smartwatches out there that are starting to make the rounds.  These wearable displays like the inPulse smartwatch give you access to your phone, providing details on your messages, calls, emails, and more.   I’m really not all that interested in the watch itself.  Having a secondary display is clunky and unnecessary for me.  I would just as likely just pull out my phone as have one more screen with me.  What is interesting is that these devices represent the baby steps of moving a mobile device into one that can interact with screens around them.  While AirPlay does this relatively well between Apple devices, if we are going to see that future with all the devices interacting together some serious work needs to be done to get that in place so that iOS, Blackberry, Android and Windows Phone will speak to other Windows, Linux and OSX devices.  Devices like these watches are transitional technologies that will lead the charge in making that happen.


2011.32 | Speech Recognition @ Retail

Speech Recognition

I really enjoyed reading over this recently released infographic on speech recognition.  Things have come a long way since a keyboard challenged office mate of mine bought a headset with attached microphone and commenced annoying my area of the office with his verbal discussions with his word processor over a decade ago.

Google’s iPhone app has had speech recognition capability for ages now, but I don’t really use it when I can just type something in – most searches are short enough that speaking it isn’t worth it.

I also have used Dragon Dictation for iPhone and iPad, but I’ve found I need to change my thought process for text entry.  It’s useful for a slightly longer text message if one is alone, but I don’t find that I speak out loud in the same way that I write, so the dictation app is not as useful for my use of  jobs like word processing – or blogging.

While I don’t find it useful for writing or searching, speech recognition is extremely useful in the car, when you cannot access your phone while driving – it is illegal in my area, so hands free operation is a must.  With solutions like Blue Ant’s S4, connected to Vlingo it is even possible to hear and send text messages and more via speech to text and text to speech.

In fact, from a retailer and consumer facing organization’s perspective, the biggest opportunities for voice recognition could be for using in an automobile scenario.  As per my last post, 2011.31 being able to order while driving by talking to the car is a twist on the mobile channel that provides an increased level of convenience for time constrained consumers.

Another interesting angle is the potential of providing speech recognition solutions in a drive thru environment for quick service restaurants.  While having customers use a touch screen would slow the order taking capability, if speech recognition improved enough, it could provide a potential throughput improvement for a drive thru.  Instead of relaying items to an attendant who lists them on the screen at car side, speech recognition could do the same thing more quickly and ideally more accurately – showing the customer items on the screen as they are spoken.  Sites with multiple lanes could be monitored by one person with improved throughput.

To take it further, this system could even be extended away from the outside of the restaurant.  Clients could dial a number for their local Quick Service Restaurant from their car and put together their order via speech recognition, and be given a unique and memorable order number –  their mobile number perhaps.  When they arrive at the drive thru, they can identify their order with the number.  The order can be pulled from the POS system as a suspended order, and the customer proceeds to the payment and pickup windows.  This would allow the customer to speed their ordering, and the restaurant to increase throughput at the busiest part of many locations.

As always, there would be a great deal of tweaking to be done, particularly around operations.  For example, if items are out of inventory, the system needs to know so that customers cannot order items that are out of stock, and ideally alternatives are provided to the customers.  In order to prepare this for prime time, some serious stress testing would need to be completed.

Speech recognition is far from optimal at present but has improved incredibly.  We have all dealt with IVRs that frustrate us, for example while trying to get help on a hotel reservation or change our phone service, but as it improves some intriguing possiblities reveal themselves.

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2011.31 | Shopping from your Car

The rebirth of the American auto business is thanks in part to the efforts of the car companies to integrate two great consumer loves – automobiles and mobile phones. It started out with Bluetooth integration to allow hands free calling, but given the increasing power of smartphones and their usability, auto makers are taking it up a level to provide remote control capability, audio integration and more.

I saw a wonderful demonstration of the potential of these solutions in the demonstration centre at my own place of business some time ago. At the time it seemed a bit fanciful to me, but over time, I’m starting to see the real potential of the idea.

At present the integration of mobile phones and automobiles is mostly linked to telephone calls and audio integration.  Some solutions are going a bit further as mentioned above, but there aren’t any shopping solutions that I have seen yet.

If we take that technology a few steps further you can imagine the incredible change that is coming our way.

Consider a drive home from work a few years hence:

You get in the car, and begin to drive home.  Your phone rings and it is your spouse.  They indicate that you are short on milk and bread, and that you had promised to pick up a jar of olives that day.  This sort of conversation is routine on a car ride home in today’s world.

The part that will change is that after you hang up the phone, you will then be able to ask your mobile via audio command to check the stores on your route home for three items: bread, milk, and olives.  Your mobile device can take the command given and can identify the stores in order of preference, price, or location.  You can speak the name of the store you would like to buy from, and the purchase will be made instantaneously over the phone.  You stop at the store and pick up the items purchased at a special counter – or even better – you pull up and someone puts them in the trunk of your car.  The receipt is already in your receipts folder in your email.

While it sounds like a bit of a dream, all of the solution components exist to do this today:

Smartphone with Automobile Integration–  The power of any of the smartphone mobile devices available today is well within the realm of reality required for completing these sorts of solutions.  Many new cars have bluetooth integration and that technology should expand and improve.

Audio Input to MobileGoogle has been doing this for some time.  It is getting more accurate, as well.  I use Dragon Dictation and have tested it in loud environments and it works well.  Apple is also rumoured to be building this into next iOS – expect others to do so.  Expect people to abuse it in public to everyone’s embarrassment, as well.

GPS Search along route – It is already possible to identify locations along a route using Google Maps.  While stores need to be identified in some way, sites tags could be used.

Inventory Search – There are already UK based services to price compare specific grocery lists.  While more rare in Canada for grocery, there are some that provide inventory searches in general merchandise already – Chapters Indigo and The Source already provide it.  If there is an API to get the information, it could be brought together for this solution.

Online Purchase – There are many services to purchase online already like Paypal, or a retailer can leverage an existing web store.

Paying without Entering a Credit Card – The purchase could be completed via a one click purchase by keeping a credit card number on file as  is already done by iTunes and Amazon.  The solution would have to be adjusted to a verbal equivalent, but this could be done using a solution like Amazon’s PayPhrase.

While this sort of solution would not be without its complexities, it is certainly within the adjacent possible.  Like the Tesco Korean Subway grocery shopping solution, or like the Starbucks Mobile Payment solution, it is a matter of assembling a number of components that already exist today and cleverly packaging them.   Being the first one to a solution like this could provide a terrific competitive advantage.

The greater challenge for retailers is integrating a monster like this into their operations infrastructure.  To make something like this really take off, execution would need to be flawless.  If the inventory is missing, or the store staff don’t provide a pickup, or the payment process isn’t simple, customers will not use the solution and it will be a wasted idea.

While this is a challenging area – it seems like a true possibility.  Retailers are already struggling with the many channels for sales – web, mobile, store, self service kiosk and more, it will only get more complex over time as these channels snowflake into various subsections – like mobile ordering via an automobile.

Beyond the complexities of all of the items above, there are two things for retailers to consider before being able to leverage a solution like this:

1.  A service oriented architecture of some sort needs to be in place to deal with ongoing requests for new channels. If every solution is custom, this will never happen.

2.  In order to accommodate customers via all of these channels and to understand what channels customers are using and what they want, it will be come increasingly important to implement a back end solution that allows retailers a view of customers across all of these channels as well as a vehicle to interface with them across all of them in the simplest most transparent way possible.  Without this infrastructure, the business will become increasingly fragmented and impossible to operate efficiently.

A solution like this would have been mere fantasy even 3 or 4 years ago.  It is exciting to see the possibilities for consumer convenience, and the potential for retailer differentiation.  Hopefully we will see implementations of this type in the near future.

2011.01 | Articles of Note

A few interesting retail based articles from over the holiday season:

  • I find the multiple to single queues found in banks and some retail stores to be my favourite, but not everyone sees it.   Consider why it seems you always pick the wrong line.
  • Square ships their payment at iPhone dongle and application.  Check out an unboxing.
  • Researchers at Cornell have put together a 3D food printer.  This could change food distribution for QSRs restaurants of all sorts in the future
  • While not overtly a retail technology, this iteration of the Cooper Mini App and its car integration certainly sets the stage for increasing integration between vehicles and retailers. Adding in the element of gaming to compare yourself with other drivers is a fascinating element as well.
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