Retail Tue, Mar 27, '18
Nine Tech Buzzwords Retailers Should Actually Understand, Part One


The technology landscape is constantly changing, and tech marketers don’t always make it easy to keep up, introducing hundreds of buzzwords to our lexicon. At SoftBank Robotics, one of our goals is to make technology approachable and actionable for our partners and customers. To help, we’re going to focus on some critical concepts that every retail marketer will need to understand to stay ahead of the curve in 2018, and in future posts, we’ll elaborate on each concept. To start, here’s part one of our three part series, in which we will outline three of nine key tech buzzwords you should actually understand.

1. Virtual Reality 

When you think about virtual reality (VR), you can think about those big black goggles like the Oculus Rift. Virtual reality is a kind of technology that can create an entirely simulated, 3-dimensional environment through imaging hardware. Everything you see is a simulation, which is what makes it virtual as opposed to augmented.

Often thought of as a consumer technology, VR presents some interesting advantages at the corporate level. Virtualizing store maps allows brands to optimize their layouts, from the floor-plan all the way to the shelf. Brands design stores virtually, and simulate the shopper experience with real shoppers to study their actual behavior against new floor plans. This ensures every square foot is used to its fullest.

VR is also employed to create a “pop-up shop” experience for retailers, which is the perfect solution for situations where physical real estate isn’t available or practical - like at community festivals, or, in a shopper’s own home.

For retailers, however, using VR in the storefront poses some challenges. First, the significant hardware requirements present a natural barrier in today’s landscape. Most VR technologies are highly specialized, from headsets to controllers, so there’s little-to-no value the hardware can provide a business outside of creating a virtual environment. Secondly, VR tech hasn’t yet been fully commercialized, making it pretty expensive for what is still a niche use case - about $500 or more per unit. This means, in 2018, VR will provide retailers the most value at the corporate level, not the storefront.

If you’re curious how VR technology actually works, here’s a great tutorial for non-technical readers.

2. Augmented Reality

Unlike VR, augmented reality (AR) does not exist in a fully simulated environment. Instead, AR technology layers visual effects on top of a real environment to, well, augment it. AR introduces simulated effects to make a real world experience richer and more interactive.

Currently, AR is a much more friendly technology to leverage with shoppers, both in stores and in home. Ikea and Apple have teamed up to enable shoppers to visualize Ikea furniture accurately in a customer’s abode, while interactive mirrors are helping shoppers in store explore an infinite number of products in a highly personalized, tailored fashion.

The technical requirements are much more manageable because AR can leverage the smartphones that are so ubiquitous across today’s market. In fact, over 900 million smartphones will be AR-enabled by the end of 2018, and Google recently published an insight claiming that 61% of shoppers would prefer to shop at a store that offered AR.

Although AR cannot help virtualize store environments at the corporate level and is limited to adding a digital layer over an existing environment, its low barrier to entry, high adoption by consumers, and wide variety of shopper-friendly use cases make it a great starting point for brands looking to adopt and embrace technological innovation.

If you’re curious how the hardware and software behind augmented reality works, here’s another great beginner’s guide.

3. Artificial Intelligence 

Simply put, you can think about artificial intelligence (AI) as software designed to help computers learn and problem solve. The ultimate goal is software that can identifying previously unnoticed patterns, deriving smarter and smarter insights, finding unidentified solutions to our hardest challenges, and potentially, even writing its own code to enhance and adapt its own performance. You might also hear the term “cognitive computing,” which is often used synonymously with AI.

Why does this matter to retailers? Because AI can be leveraged, even today, to improve the customer experience. AI technologies are helping brands of all sizes deliver better search, better service, and a much more personalized shopping experience for digital and physical shoppers. In addition, it’s being used by data scientists and analysts to solve a variety of business operations challenges, from logistics and inventory management, to predicting what, when, and how shoppers will buy.

If you would like to learn more about the technical terms associated with AI, such as neural networks, natural language processing, and algorithms, here’s a wonderful summary written by Information Week.

Approach Technology Intelligently

It’s important for retail marketing executives not to chase the newest shiny toy when making technology investments. VR, AR, and AI all have established use cases, hundreds of millions of investment dollars supporting their maturation, and some of the top tech talent working to develop and productize such offerings.

Join us for part two of this series, where we’ll be discussing the retail use cases for chatbots, robotics, and natural language processing.

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Steve Carlin

Written by Steve Carlin