The most wow new tech initiatives January 2019

Sometimes, in the course of daily life, you come across something that you just think is cool. Something that’s really innovative or unusual. Sometimes it’s in a completely different field or being used for another purpose, but you can see how, in time, it could apply to the world of retail too. Unsurprisingly, this happens to us a lot.

As such, here’s the first in our regular new review of the best new wow tech and ideas out there and why you should know about them. You’ll find all sorts here, but what they all have in common is potential. And they’re all pretty cool.


TV retail commerce

Image credit: Connekt

TV ads are now shoppable in real-time

What is it?

This smart bit of tech from Connekt lets customers securely buy what they see in TV and video advertising in real-time. Now the company has been awarded a patent for its unique technology which can use smartphones, voice assistants like Alexa and good old remote controls as the methods to buy.


Why you need to know

This is about blending of entertainment and shopping. It’s a logical next step for the adverts that all of us have seen on TV for decades. Why shouldn’t you be able to click a button to find out more about the thing on your screen and buy directly?

Right now, Connekt is focusing on existing ad spots but it’s not hard to imagine how this tech could be used to allow us to shop within TV shows, movies, music videos, sports events… That’s a lot of opportunity.

It also allows retailers to leverage events and timeframes for impulse buying. A pizza advert that goes out at dinner time becomes a shop window. A final of a world sport event becomes an opportunity to tap into viewer emotions by showing a shoppable ad for the tennis racket or football boots just used. A TV adaptation could sell the original book to viewers at the end.

Then there’s the data. This isn’t just about eyes on ads anymore. With Connekt brands can actually measure the impact their ads are having based on how many viewers convert.


A robot that trains employees to deal with difficult customers

What is it?

Swedish start-up Furhat Robotics has created an Employee Training Robot that combines robotics, 3D printing and visual projection to help staff learn how to deal with tricky customers. Through the use of cameras, speakers and microphones the robotic bust can interact with and respond to staff and different scenarios. To make it feel more realistic it can even show emotion and maintain eye contact, as well as speaking and listening. It features a 3D printed mask which can change in appearance from man to woman to child and more through projections.


Why you need to know

Staff training is a constant in the retail world. The more immersive and ‘real-life’ it is the better for everyone – employees are more engaged and can actually benefit from what’s on offer, customers benefit from a better experience and retailers win as a result. Some retailers like Lowe’s have turned to VR to help with this challenge. A robotic solution like this one from Furhat is another viable option.

While it could be used for any training scenario, where this sort of enhanced training option seems most useful though is when it comes to the more difficult conversations. Maybe you have to tell customers something is out of stock or that you’ve lost their order. Maybe you have to explain that a coupon has expired or they can’t return an item without a receipt. Being able to run through and practice this scenarios in advance can help staff feel more confident and empowered when they have to do it in real life.


Google VR patent

Image credit: Google

Google has patented sneakers for VR

What is it?

This new patent from Google aims to solve a major VR issue with motorised shoes. Each shoe has two sets of wheels which work to counteract the action of the wearer stepping forward. It means you can walk normally but without really going anywhere. There is also a tracking device to prevent users from going out of their safe zone and stubbing their leg on the coffee table.


Why you need to know

One of VR’s biggest issues, or barriers if you will, is that you may be looking at a virtual world and you may even be interacting with it virtually through hand motions, but walking around is still very much rooted in reality. To explore a VR store for example, you would need to wander around your home as every step you take is matched by a step in the real world. And most of us don’t have that big a living room.

What Google’s patent does is to let you go through those motions but without actually moving anywhere in real life. It’s a way of tackling a big drawback to this tech and a possible key in its wider usage. Right now this is just an idea, but a solution of this nature will need to come to light before we can get too carried away about VR versions of real-life experiences like shopping. One to watch.


3D printing robot

3D printed objects can now track their use

What is it?

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed smart 3D printed objects that can track and store information about their usage. The system deliberately doesn’t use electronics or batteries, but shares the information using backscatter (to you and us, that’s using existing radio frequency signals and antenna to transmit).


Why you need to know

This is cool right? At present the researchers are concentrating on using this capability on assistive items like prosthetics. But it also opens up a whole new world of possibility when it comes to replenishment and refills.

If your bottle of pills knows when you’re getting low could it alert you or even order your repeat prescription? Could your pen let you know when it’s running out? One day might you be able to license a shoe design from your favourite brand, 3D print a pair, track your usage and then print a new pair when they reach the end of their life?

The wide-scale impact of 3D printing so far remains to be seen but if we get there then making these products smart seems like a logical next step. Or it may be that it becomes a useful step in the product development cycle. Brands could gather real-life information on how people interact with and use new products and concepts.


wearable retail tech

Image credit: L’Oreal La Roche-Posay

This wearable sensor will track your UV exposure

What is it?

You may be aware that a few years ago L’Oreal developed a wearable skin patch for tracking UV exposure. Now its Tech Incubator has taken this idea further to create a standalone UV-tracking wearable sensor that can be clipped onto clothes or accessories.

Sold under the La Roche-Posay brand, My Skin Track UV has a built in LED detector that measures UV when exposed to sunlight. The information is shared with a partner mobile app via near-field communication. As well as tracking UVA rays, the app has an algorithm for figuring out UVB exposure and can alert users if they are exposed to high levels.


Why you need to know

The great thing about the sensor is it’s tiny – around the size of an M&M – which means it’s not intrusive. It also never needs to be charged which means users are less likely to take it off and forget to put it back on. It’s a set-it-and-leave-it type of concept.

Interestingly My Skin Track UV is being sold in an exclusive partnership with Apple, which does make for a more limited pool of potential customers, but shows that these sorts of tech ideas have retail value. As tech becomes a bigger part of every facet of our lives we may see more tech company tie ups with brands looking to add new capabilities to their offering.

Then there’s the fact that it indicates a future where brands that were previously concerned only with selling products, like makeup and skincare, are now moving towards more of an ecosystem model. It’s about helping customers live better lives, empowering them with data and products that then solve their problems. For L’Oreal there’s also significant value in data about customer habits and activity which can be used to inform product development.


Any surface can be turned into a user interface

What is it?

HyperSurfaces uses AI and machine learning to turn any surface into an interface point. That means any shape, size or material from plastic tubs to wooden tables to metal cutlery. The idea works by converting vibrations from interactions with the surface into digital commands. What’s more all the clever stuff happens within the integrated tech, rather than needing to connect to the cloud or anything else.


Why you need to know

This is one of those developments that moves us closer towards a sci-fi version of the future. HyperSurfaces suggests applications could include a car door that lets you control elements without the need for buttons, a floor that can detect burglars or a table that lets you turn on and off the lights.

When it comes to retail this capability could be felt in both store environments, where customers could interact with every part of the design to trigger content and environmental changes, and in the products being sold themselves. Car manufacturers, furniture makers, kitchenware designers and more could all make use of this tech to add useful capabilities to their products.


Anyone can build a robot with AWS’s RoboMaker service

What is it?

This new service from Amazon Web Services (AWS) combines the leading open source robotics software framework Robot Operating System (ROS) with AWS’s own cloud services. This means machine learning, analytics and so forth. As a result, robot applications and smart functions can be developed, tested and rolled out far more easily by anyone.


Why you need to know

We hear a lot about robots in retail, but once you’ve got them, then what? AWS RoboMaker makes it easier to develop applications for them – ie uses – make them intelligent, test them and then manage them. The simulation suite even includes a retail store and warehouse as standard so you have somewhere to play.

Its open source nature means the field just opened up. This means that we may start to see an increase in robotics experiments and innovations – hopefully in some new and interesting ways.

It’s also a great example of how this type of innovation can be developed as a service. We’re already seeing a rise in plug-and-play options from companies to help retailers get started with IoT and the like. Breaking down the barriers to entry in robotics is another step in this direction.

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