Recently there has been a lot of talk about new forms of interactive media emerging in recent years. Augmented reality, virtual reality – each already have, or are expected to, make waves among the consumer audience. Recent reports even suggest Apple could be working on augmented reality features for this year’s iPhone. Alongside Facebook’s announcement that they will be adding 360-degree video to their ‘live’ platform, this year could be the time that new forms of media hit the mass market.
It’s all undoubtedly good fun – interacting with your phone without even having to pick it up or immersing yourself in virtual reality both sound like parts of a sci-fi future long overdue. However, it can take a few more steps for these features to go beyond flash-in-the-pan gimmickry to a genuinely useful business tool. With the phrase ‘business tool’, we are talking about uses that go beyond marketing stunts and deliver tangible improvements and business benefits to a company’s model.
In some senses, we are already there. While the Go-Pro generation may have just started catching on to 360-degree video, some businesses have already embraced the tech and reaped the rewards. With emerging technology and sensors connected through the Internet of Things (IoT), and advanced software analytics sifting through the big data collected, true business results can be felt. For retail operations, the applications of integrating multiple interconnected sensors, 360-degree video and analytics software are multiple.
The most direct consequence of such technology comes from the effect it will have on improving customer experience. Customer experience is more important than ever, and as physical stores come up against ever greater competition from the digital space, this importance will only grow. Experience, rather than ease, is likely to be the great differentiator that gets people out to the shops rather than at home on their tablets.
Smart video technology can track customer pathways and journeys. With analytics built-in this means that these cameras can count customers in a space, or movement in a zone, and automatically alert staff through notifications pushed to their phones. Overcrowding, overlong queues or displaced visual displays can be dealt with in a much more efficient manner.
Additionally, smart sensors can assess customer reactions – it can even go so far as to assess the expressions on a customer’s face. By doing so, they can understand how atmosphere and visual stimulus affects interaction. What music affects purchasing decisions? Which visual displays are holding a gaze? What’s the best type of lighting for creating a welcoming atmosphere? Digital signage can also be monitored to determine the effectiveness of influencing buying behaviour. These are all murky questions that interconnected 360-degree tech can shed new light on without requiring unreliable focus groups or questionnaires – and it all goes toward creating a more enjoyable experience for the customer.
Businesses should always exercise good judgement when it comes to new technology; there is a fine line between jumping on the bandwagon and recognising a genuinely valuable trend ahead of its time. Virtual reality and augmented reality may not quite be there yet; though we can imagine a time when they will be. Augmented reality mirrors that allow you to try on clothing without actually removing one’s outfit, virtual showrooms for a new bespoke kitchen, or tours of different destinations when planning a holiday, could all be genuinely useful applications – but they are not yet quite a reality.
The Internet of Things (IoT), however, has been growing massively; recent research from Gartner suggests that 20.8 billion connected devices will be in use across the world by 2020. This is not just a trend – this is a genuine area in which retail businesses can compete and grow in. For smaller businesses, it represents a chance to differentiate and challenge the more established competition. While these devices are widely available, it is more straightforward for a small operation to install them from the get-go than for a multinational to upgrade large estates and multiple supplier procurement.
We are reaching a point now where once sci-fi seeming technology has reached a maturation where it is realistic for businesses to invest in it. Savvy consumers can see through gimmicks, and new experiences will be needed to move retail into the 21st Century in a sustainable manner. That magic may not necessarily come from an all singing, all dancing, store of the future, but subtle changes that make the customer experiences more enjoyable; quicker moving queues, finely tuned atmospheres, and incredibly well thought out spaces that promote delight and dwell time. Facebook may be implementing 360-degree video, but it’s businesses who need to embrace it and start giving people an experience that gets them out of the virtual world, and back onto the high streets.