July 10, 2012

The Future of Shopping: Coming Soon to a Store Near You

What would your ideal features be in a personal shopping assistant? Would smart, mobile, and informative be at the top of your list? Then you’re in luck, because last week IBM Research announced its plans to release a new mobile shopping application. It is currently being developed by research scientists at IBM’s lab in Haifa, Israel and plans on changing the way we shop in stores. The new mobile app will give consumers the same type of information they search for online when researching or comparing products but instead it will be delivered on their mobile devices while they shop inside stores.

Picture yourself standing in the cereal aisle of your local grocery store. You can’t quite decide which box of cereal to buy, but you know that you’re looking for something that is low in sugar, on sale, and has good reviews. This could be overwhelming, right? That is where IBM’s innovative shopping app will come in handy. Shoppers will be able to pull out their smart phone or tablets and use the camera to pan over products on the shelf, and the application will instantly display certain products based on shopper’s specific criteria. Upon downloading the app users will be able to create a profile of preferences that are important to them in potential products, including just about anything from price, quality, sodium content, biodegradable packaging, reviews, discounts, ingredients they wish to avoid, among many others. The app will then sort and recommend products based on the users profile. Consumers who download the app will also be able to opt-in to include information from their social networks, such as reviews or comments written by their friends about potential products.

To develop this new technology, IBM selected a team of research scientists with image processing expertise. The team developed algorithms to combine techniques used in facial recognition, color and shape matching, and associations with surrounding products for use in the app. Researchers are also taking into account the device’s camera angle and distance from a shelf when being used to help distinguish between products successfully. The research scientists even went so far as to create a mock supermarket in order to recognize various approaches and challenges involved when users go to use the app, including overcoming issues such as lighting, shadows, and reflections.

IBM Research also believes that the app will help retailers with their marketing strategy by giving them insight into consumer trends and what consumers are actively searching for on their trips in their stores. This in turn would allow retailers to offer shoppers product information, coupons, and suggested products that would be welcome by customers and keep them returning to their store. The application could also assist in helping retailers keep tabs on what is or isn’t on their shelves, organize their stores more efficiently, and manage what is on sale. The app is win-win for IBM who is hoping to strengthen their relationship with retailers.

“The idea of standing in an aisle in the supermarket and having your mobile device point out the gluten-free cookies you need can be a real time saver. This has the potential to completely change the shopping experience from one of hunting, reading, and searching to simply picking up those products you prefer.” said Amnon Ribak, project leader for the application. IBM’s goal is to release the application by the end of this year. Until then you’ll just have to settle for shopping the old-fashioned way.

Contributed by Nicole Juliano

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