The Future of Retail — Trends From NRF

The Future of Retail — Trends From NRF

After a great week at NRF talking tech with industry leaders about the future of retail, experiencing cutting-edge demos, and learning about retail’s biggest challenges and opportunities, we’re back in the office with a heightened appreciation for the exciting possibilities ahead.

In my last post, I announced our Retail Innovation Accelerator, which is focused on harnessing emergent technologies to develop customer solutions in an agile way. This retail solutions incubator — which is powered by internal innovation projects and strategic partnerships across voice & chat, telemetry & insights, and modern supply chain — provides a framework for our customers to more easily identify the technologies best suited to digitally transform their businesses.

This week, I’d like to switch gears a bit and discuss some of the trends we saw at NRF. While by no means an exhaustive list, I hope this helps paint the picture of how retailers should think about digital transformation efforts over the next year and beyond.

1. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One thing that stood out compared to past NRF Big Show’s is how technology companies are thinking about the power of multi-platform solutions. To unpack that, it’s becoming more and more evident that there isn’t one technology that can truly transform your retail and brand experience. Rather, a suite of technologies must be integrated into a cohesive, omni-channel strategy to really move the needle. If you are considering RFID sensors to make your dressing room “smart”, pair this with digital signage powered by a recommendation engine to help complete your customers’ outfit. Or how about taking that a step further with an AR-powered selfie app that shows customers what those boots would look like with their new dress? Individual technologies may generate some buzz, but the right suite of technologies can truly transform a retail business.

2. The year of the edge: connected everything. The best brands react to their customers in real-time, and the only way to do that is by listening smartly. The collection — and more importantly analysis — of data will continue to be one of the primary differentiators between successful and unsuccessful retailers. But how do you capture the kind of meaningful data that yields actionable insights? At Valence, we’ve been working in the IoT space for many years. However it was still eye-opening to see such a strong focus on the “connected everything” store. Edge devices and sensors are seeing exponential advancements in on-board compute power, connectivity, and battery life, while AI-powered cloud services continue to evolve. With technologies like computer vision, it’s amazing how much you can learn about yourself and your customers.

3. Retail robotics is maturing, but not there yet. We all know robotics in the warehouse is already here, but when will robots be roaming the sales floor? Can a robot re-stock shelves? How about provide wayfinding to a lost customer? We saw some compelling “front-of-house” demos from hardware and software companies alike, but at this time robotics still resonate best when tackling “back-of-house” challenges. However — as with all promising technologies — it’s only a matter of time until the cost-benefit ratio leads retailers to use robotics for more purposes.

4. Your platform is your product. While we used to only think of your platform — whether web site or store front — as the place to showcase your product, today’s competitive landscape means that your platform might just be your most important product. There are so many ways to buy, it’s important that yours is the easiest, fastest, and has a little extra flavor than the competitor. Improving your platform can be as simple as re-writing your web site copy to better match your brand’s voice, or can be as complex as restructuring your inventory management system and releasing a “buy online, pick up in-store” app. Whatever the approach may be, it’s important to understand how vital your platforms are in differentiating your brand.

5. Amplify your voice with…voice! It seems obvious, but in order to stay relevant brands must operate at the pace of consumers. And with the exponential evolution cycle in consumer technology, this is getting harder and harder to do. Voice may one day usurp touch as the primary user interface, and it’s important to consider the user flow for customers interacting with your brand on services like Amazon Alexa. We didn’t see as many voice-based demos at NRF as we expected…all the more reason to start investing in this space before your competitors do.

Next week, I’ll be providing a recap of everything we’ve learned and announced throughout our month of retail. I’m excited to share the opportunities on the horizon for all retailers who are ready to adopt emergent technologies.

Humanizing the Un-Human: The Current State of Robotics

Humanizing the Un-Human: The State of Robotics

Waypoint Vector

I know what you’re thinking (insert 80’s pop culture movie with robots), I thought the same thing when I saw my company was digging its heels into robotics. But wouldn’t that take jobs away? Is there even demand for robots? What about robot attacks?

Well shame on me, I was completely wrong, across the board. Let’s talk about the state of robotics.

I recently drove roundtrip from New York City to Toronto, by way of Montreal and a little city in New Hampshire called Merrimack where I visited Waypoint Robotics, a company Valence is partnering with to bring digital innovation, and in this case, robotics innovation, to enterprise companies all over the world.

Upon entering Waypoint, you can tell these guys are serious about what they are working on and super (rightly) proud of it. After seeing Waypoint’s Vector, moving swiftly about the shop, I was pleased to spend time with Waypoint’s founder and CEO, Jason Walker, who let me take over the helm of the Vector.

Waypoint is something of an anomaly — they are a robotics company that is not even two years old, and they have already shipped dozens of robots. As everyone knows, hardware is hard, and getting a hardware product on the market within two years is pretty amazing; but with robotics, four years to market is more typical if it’s an exceptional team.

What really sets Waypoint apart is how easy the Vector is to use. That didn’t happen by accident and it’s more than just a product requirement — it’s Waypoint’s design philosophy. But the next layer of the onion, the “why” is what’s most interesting. Waypoint started with the workforce, and made their needs, their experience, the guiding light for designing the products; not just in terms of workflow and user experience, but from a cultural and sociological standpoint. Waypoint believes that the workforce is essential to the economy on the supply and demand side, but more importantly, the workforce is the fabric of our society. Waypoint recognizes, emphasizes, and utilizes that tremendous value.

Waypoints customers aren’t looking to eliminate their workforce; on the contrary, they typically have had a “for hire” sign in the window for years. But until Waypoint’s Vector came along, the only way to get a robot working was to hire a roboticist to go with it, and that’s just one more, even harder-to-hire person. Waypoint’s idea was to make a robot that is so easy to setup and use that the workforce that is on the job right now, can immediately take Vector and put it to work for them. There’s nobody better to setup a robot to help with moving materials than the person who’s been moving those same materials in that same factory for the last 15 years.

Over and over we see customers who have their most valuable people, their most skilled and rare tradespeople pushing carts for hours and hours each week. These workers know the value of their time and their talent, and they know what a waste it is to be pushing carts when they could be setting up CNC machines or rebuilding transmissions. It is frustrating to do work that underutilized your talents, and it’s ten times as frustrating when that work is physically exhausting or ergonomically stressful.

To sum it all up, the idea is to make a product that the workforce can take control of and use directly. The state of robotics is that we should empower the workforce with a new industry 4.0 tool. In doing so, we invest in our people as valuable teammates and add to their skill set. Simultaneously they are able to offload the most physically demanding, and essential but low-value tasks to the robot. And that in turn gives the workforce more genuinely productive and rewarding hours in the day. The state of robots is more productivity, less physical exhaustion, and a longer career all translate to a higher quality of life — and that’s the core of the onion; that’s the why.

At Valence, we take the latest technologies and apply them to the challenges faced by enterprise customers every day. Interested in hearing more? Contact us and we’ll start you off with a demo, to show how remarkable this technology can be!

Additional Resources: 

Robotics: Cue the Pizza Drones?

Robotics: Cue the Pizza Drones?

Drones and robots are going to solve all of our delivery woes!

Well…. not so fast. It was definitely fun to see Domino’s deliver its first pizza by autonomous drone in New Zealand a bit over a year ago. But the truth is we’re not going to see fleets of airborne delivery bots anytime soon, no matter how much Domino’s, Amazon, or UPS invest in drone technology (plus the critical AI needed to make the devices smarter than flying Tinkertoys).

First, let’s look at what was behind the scenes of that first pizza delivery. As Business Insider put it, “A team of drone experts and a pilot autonomously controlled Flirtey’s DRU Drone through GPS navigation to drop off the pizzas.” Even if it were a small team of drone experts, say three at most, that still requires four people to deliver a pizza. A great stunt. Something to spark the imagination. But not a realistic business model for getting hot pizza to the masses any time soon.

Part of the hold-up is FAA regulations protecting the public (and our collective airspace) from errant pies or inept drone operators, not to mention high-tech electronics falling out of the sky. At the moment there is a “line-of-sight” rule, generally requiring all drones to be directly visible to their operators. So for now, drone flight is all pretty manual and pretty complicated. The other part of the hold-up is technical. As in, there’s work to be done before drones are safe and reliable enough to deliver pizzas (or other packages, for that matter) in the real world. Once these barriers are resolved, we expect to see rapid adoption.

The field of robotics is actually fascinating right now. On the one hand, there’s a bunch of tech that’s exciting to watch but not quite ready for Prime Time. (Here’s where drone pizza delivery fits in.) And on the other hand, there’s old technology that’s been in widespread use since the ’80s. Massive industrial robots that perform repetitive tasks with perfect precision in automotive factories, for example. But those robots are extremely expensive, not adaptive, and they must be precisely programmed to perform incredibly specific tasks.

So, what’s in the middle? Are modern robots being deployed in the real world? Of course, there’s the famous example of the 45,000-strong workforce of Kiva robots powering Amazon’s warehouses around the world. And some retailers are currently conducting trials in big box stores. Lowes, for example, which is experimenting with a “Lowebot” to help people find products. Or Target, where a Simbe Robotics model called Tally monitors the stock on shelves, freeing up sales associates to focus on clients.

Plus watch out for anyone planning mischief at a mall or stadium parking lot. Robots are starting to supplement security guards to identify suspicious activity in public parks, at sporting events, and in enormous indoor shopping venues.

As it happens, the drone world is also an area of exciting innovation in robotics, despite the stunt with the pizza boxes. Already, advanced drones fitted with navigation systems, sensors, and AI are able to inspect thousands of miles of track for railroad companies; assess the safety of offshore oil rigs; fly over wind turbines to check for maintenance issues; and examine miles of overhead power lines searching for damage. When equipped with computer vision, navigation, and other AI capabilities, autonomous drones are cheaper, safer, and faster than humans conducting the same kind of industrial inspections.

Although this technology is not mainstream at the moment, it is developing rapidly and more cheaply than ever before. Where drones once cost millions and were affordable only to military forces and the like, today they are available for hundreds (at most thousands) of dollars. Plus, open source platforms that offer AI and other advanced functionality are cheaper and more widely available than ever before.

So while it’s not likely for your pizza to drop out of the sky thanks to drones and robots anytime soon, there are real applications for drones and robots at industrial scale that can transform your business. Particularly when paired with advanced sensors, AI, cloud computing, and IoT technology.

Wonder if drones or robots could advance your enterprise? At Valence we help our clients separate fact from fiction and incorporate leading-edge technology that drives real results. We’d love to show you the way. Interested? Contact us, and we’ll help you get started!

Chatbots: Much More Than A Novelty

Chatbots: Much More Than A Novelty

The promise of Artificial Intelligence and chatbots is here.

Sure, humanoid robots s aren’t yet roaming the earth, but AI-induced applications and AI-infused services are transforming the world around us into a more intelligent, interactive, and empowered domain. Looking for a good example? Ask Siri, Alexa, Cortana, or CleverBot. They, collectively, are the answer.

Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google’s Cleverbot are all examples of chatbots — “a computer program which conducts a conversation via auditory or textual methods.” Some chatbots use natural language processing ability to understand your speech and then respond verbally. Apple’s Siri is perhaps the most famous example of this type of chatbot, though Alexa and Cortana are also widely used. Other chatbots are text-based, responding to typed questions, commands, or observations. Microsoft’s Xiaoice, for example, was released in China in 2014 and, as of only a year later, had already been used by over 40 million smartphone owners (25% of whom had reportedly said “I love you” to their “virtual friend,” which is available on China’s two most prominent social media platforms — Weibo and WeChat).

Chatbots have been the subject of controversy — see Microsoft’s Tay — and frequent comic derision — see, e.g. Siri. More generally, many people see them as little more than a novelty — a fun way for consumers to interact with technology. But they are much much more than that. Simply put, chatbots are a powerful example of the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence into mainstream society. And we are just scratching the surface of their capabilities.

To-date, the landscape of chatbots available for consumers and enterprises has been dominated largely by the tech titans mentioned above. It is in the process, though, of getting significantly more diverse and dynamic, a phenomenon driven by the release of numerous chatbot frameworks for developers.

Chatbot frameworks are essentially software development kits (SDKs) for the AI-verse. They provide a platform — the technology infrastructure — for developers to build chatbots in a manner which meets their needs. The release of frameworks like Microsoft’s Bot Framework and Facebook’s Bot Engine (wit.ai) means that any developer, be they a hobbyist or professional service provider, can build a chatbot to improve their life or the lives of those around them.

Want to build a chatbot that speaks to you in Captain Hook lingo in time for the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19)? Have at it! Think your business can benefit from a chatbot designed to provide a more intuitive way to access and organize the data that fuels your success? Build it!

…or let us build it! Valence understands that chatbots are more than a novelty; they are a paradigm shifting technology that can digitally transform businesses in any sector. That’s why we’re putting them to work for our clients in ways that support both their strategic objectives and their day-to-day tactics. And that’s why we’re looking forward to learning how we can put them to work for you.

Additional Resources

Enterprise Robotics: More Promising Than Working for Elon Musk

Enterprise Robotics: More Promising Than Working for Elon Musk

The field of robotics is changing, and while the humanoid robotics of science fiction are still in development, but enterprise robotics are being rapidly adopted.

Elon Musk is one of the most innovative entrepreneurs in America, having been at the forefront of technology revolutions related to online payment systems (PayPal), space travel (SpaceX), automobiles (Tesla), solar power (SolarCity), high speed transportation (Hyperloop), and artificial intelligence (OpenAI). Those who work for Musk enjoy immense funding for some of the most interesting and challenging research projects being done in the world (and usually do okay on stock options, to boot!).

One can imagine, then, that it takes a pretty special opportunity to pry talent away from a Musk operation. For a few prominent researchers, that opportunity seems to be the promise of enterprise robotics.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Pieter Abbeel, Peter Chen, and Rocky Duan were leaving Musk’s OpenAI to start a new company — Embodied Intelligence. Embodied Intelligence, or EI, will focus on artificial intelligence, or AI, for robots. More specifically, they will seek to advance “an algorithmic model called reinforcement learning — a way for machines to learn tasks by extreme trial and error.”

Abbeel et al are hardly alone in working at the nexus of AI and robotics. Rather, their “new company is part of a much wider effort to create A.I. that allows robots to learn. Researchers in places like Google, Brown University, and Carnegie Mellon are doing similar work, as are existing start-ups like Micropsi and Prowler.io.”

AI, though, is not the sole reason that enterprises perceive robotics to be rapidly increasing in value. Rather, many other recent technological breakthroughs are making the integration of robots of various shapes and sizes into traditional business processes more effective, for example:

  • New hardware designs enabling more processing power and larger amounts of storage to fit in smaller spaces (Moore’s Law in full effect!);
  • Cloud computing, which allows network-connected devices (IoT y’all!) to access specific sets of data in private or public cloud environments, or even the endless trove of data on the open Internet;
  • Advances in the durability and energy efficiency of batteries;
  • Etc etc etc.

In combination, these developments have propelled the functionality and reliability of robots to new heights.

Remember that big clunky toy robot you got as a kid for Christmas? It was so exciting! It walked! Maybe even spit out a few catchphrases! How quaint…

Today’s robots play a critical role in industries ranging from manufacturing to healthcare, and from food services to retail: “hospitals are using robots to assist in surgery, retail stores are testing robots to take inventory, and warehouses are using robots help sort packages.”

As crazy as it sounds, then, Abbeel and his colleagues may just be on to something in leaving a Musk-led organization to start a robotics firm. It’s a bit of a risk, but one that seems likely to reap significant rewards. What about you? Is your business ready to reap the rewards being generated by the rising value proposition of enterprise robotics? Let Valence help you with the answer. Enterprise robotic shipments are expected to nearly triple between 2015 and 2021, so now is the time to formulate a strategy for integrating these force maximizers into your operations…before your competitors take advantage of these new technologies themselves.

Additional Resources