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Microsoft Surface is just one of many new interactive applications coming to a retailer near you

The race is on to transform the retail environment from its traditional static model to a cosier, more tactile (and kid-friendly) experience thanks to several new interactive technologies on the horizon. And given the proliferation of iPhone-style touch tech on display at Retail's Big Show, which took place in New York at the beginning of the year, this futuristic vision isn't too far in the distance.
March 27, 2009

The race is on to transform the retail environment from its traditional static model to a cosier, more tactile (and kid-friendly) experience thanks to several new interactive technologies on the horizon. And given the proliferation of iPhone-style touch tech on display at Retail’s Big Show, which took place in New York at the beginning of the year, this futuristic vision isn’t too far in the distance.

One of the Big Show’s Concept Store participants, San Francisco, California-based Ecast, has been in the digital interactive space since 1999, facilitating upwards of US$100 million in transactions through its more than 10,000 digital jukeboxes that can be found across the US in bars, restaurants and nightclubs. VP of business development Bob Cooney says that taking the interactive kiosk idea to kids’ retail is a natural application and very much in the works.

‘The big opportunity for us is in retail, bridging the offline and online experience,’ Cooney says, explaining that the kids demo is growing up expecting more interactivity and information in all facets of consumption. To that end the company has recently developed a 40-inch full HD panel with touch-screen capability that he believes will alter the way kids and parents shop. For example, via a panel installed at a video game shop or in-store boutique, a parent would be able to see the actual game, how it’s played and what it’s about rather than just looking at screen shots on the back of a box. Ecast is currently talking to prospective buyers and expects the US$6,000 units to pop up in major retailers in the coming months.

Redmond, Washington-based software behemoth Microsoft is so serious about transforming the shopping experience that it has invested in developing several different technologies all with interactive properties built for retail application. The tech closest to being market ready is Microsoft Surface, a tabletop interactive installation that uses five different cameras to facilitate multi-touch navigation, including one that can actually recognize objects. The device is already in use at a BMW dealership in Germany and Harrah’s Las Vegas has commissioned applications for its flagship location.

‘I could certainly see it in a toy store,’ says Kevin Foreman, developer for Vectorform, a company that builds applications for Microsoft Surface. ‘A customer, even a child, could place a toy on it and it would be able to read it and display information about price, play use, and even suggest other related toys.’

The device currently sells for US$12,500 and both Foreman and Brendan O’Meara, MD of worldwide retail industry for Microsoft, report that retailers have shown interest in installing the units. And currently in beta testing, is another Microsoft technology that O’Meara says could ‘revolutionize’ the retail space.

Microsoft’s TAG technology will enable consumers to use their own smartphones (mobiles equipped with cameras and WiFi capability) to read a unique TAG on a product. Working as a barcode might, the individual TAG will then relay information directly to the consumer’s phone. ‘What we are doing is extending physical packaging and shelf display items into a real-time virtual experience,’ says O’Meara.

The information transmitted to the phone is fluid and can be changed and updated by the manufacturer simply through a standardized web form. O’Meara says that videos, updated safety information, instructions and rebate offers are among the applicable uses in a kids’ retail environment.

‘I think of it as a marketer’s dream,’ he says. ‘I can see people walking around using their mobile phones as a primary way to shop.’ The application was unveiled at CES in January and Microsoft is currently designing a business model that O’Meara says will probably revolve around monetizing the back-end business analytic information that each TAG will amass.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com

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