Thursday Nov 10, 2011

Transparent Technology from Amazon

Amazon has been making some interesting moves again, this time in the augmented humanity area.  Augmented humanity is about helping humans overcome their shortcomings using technology.  Putting a powerful smartphone in your pocket helps you in many ways like navigating streets, communicating with far off friends, and accessing information.  But the interface for smartphones is somewhat limiting and unnatural, so companies have been looking for ways to make the technology more transparent and therefore easier to use.

When Apple helped us drop the stylus, we took a giant leap forward in simplicity.  Using touchscreens with intuitive gestures was part of the iPhone's original appeal.  People don't want to know that technology is there -- they just want the benefits.  So what's the next leap beyond the touchscreen to make smartphones even easier to use?

Two natural ways we interact with the world around us is by using sight and voice.  Google and Apple have been using both in their mobile platforms for limited uses cases.  Nobody actually wants to type a text message, so why not just speak it?  Any if you want more information about a book, why not just snap a picture of the cover?  That's much more accurate than trying to key the title and/or author.

So what's Amazon been doing?  First, Amazon released a new iPhone app called Flow that allows iPhone users to see information about products in context.  Yes, its an augmented reality app that uses the phone's camera to view products, and overlays data about the products on the screen.  For the most part it requires the barcode to be visible to correctly identify the product, but I believe it can also recognize certain logos as well.  Download the app and try it out but don't expect perfection.  Its good enough to demonstrate the concept, but its far from accurate enough.  (MobileBeat did a pretty good review.)  Extrapolate to the future and we might just have a heads-up display in our eyeglasses.

The second interesting area is voice response, for which Siri is getting lots of attention.  Amazon may have purchased a voice recognition company called Yap, although the deal is not confirmed.  But it would make perfect sense, especially with the Kindle Fire in Amazon's lineup.

I believe over the next 3-5 years the way in which we interact with smartphones will mature, and they will become more transparent yet more important to our daily lives.  This will, of course, impact the way we shop, making information more readily accessible than it already is.  Amazon seems to be positioning itself to be at the forefront of this trend, so we should be watching them carefully.

Tuesday Oct 25, 2011

Shopping with Siri

Regardless of how sexy Apple and Google make smartphone user interfaces, they will always be limited by their screen size.  That is until you consider some of  the other capabilities of the smartphone, such as image and voice recognition.  Last year Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, announced our entry into the age of augmented humanity and the recent release of of the iPhone 4S has been an incredible example.

Using the Google app on my iPhone 4 (yeah, I'm not looking to upgrade yet), I can search using voice recognition.  For example, when I say "ASICS running shoes" a search is performed which renders lots of results, including where I can buy those shoes nearby.  And that brings up an important concept: the search is contextually aware.  It knew my location and was able to infer "nearby" in my request.

Amazon's Price Check app lets you search for product information by scanning the UPC, snapping a picture, or by saying the product using your iPhone.  Again, saying "ASICS running shoes" returned lots of matching products, albeit without any context.  How easy is that?

So not being one to be left behind, Apple bought a start-up (a spin-off from the Stanford Research Institute) called Siri and the rest is history the future. While Siri is not general purpose, I don't think the day when we have easy access to Watson and Wolfram Alpha is far off.

So what does this mean for retailers?  In the not-too-distant future you can expect to see shoppers asking their phones "is there a better price nearby?" and "what will this blouse look like on me?" and "is this compatible with the camera I bought last year?"  Product information will continue to be easier to access, be of better quality, and be personalized and contextual.  Here are three things retailers must do in order to remain competitive:

1. Make sure you are a trusted provider of information to your customers.  Share pricing, promotions, reviews, origin, content/ingredients, recalls, compatibility, etc. with your customers.  They are going to get this information anyway, so it might as well come from you.

2. You can't win on price anymore.  With perfect access to information, it will be too easy to find the lowest price for any particular item.  Its better to differentiate on convenience, service, and exclusivity.  (And its no accident that's Apple's model.)

3. Get serious about loyalty.  The younger generations are less concerned about privacy and more interested in relevancy.  Every interaction is a chance to provide personalized service.

In this age of augmented humanity, embrace Siri and don't be a HAL.

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David Dorf, Sr Director Technology Strategy for Oracle Retail, shares news and ideas about the retail industry with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies.


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