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Event review: NRF January 2008, New York

The undisputed leaders in the technologists’ camp were Microsoft and IBM, both present in the X08 “Beyond the walls of retail” exhibition stand, displaying their unique perspective and insight into retail design.

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface, the first in a new category of "surface computing" products from Microsoft, looks like a coffee table, but its acrylic surface lets people interact with it by using their fingers or hands or by using objects.

Microsoft showed a demonstration put together by early adopters T-Mobile, in which customers placing a mobile phone on the table were given a written description of the phone's features. Placing a second phone on the surface compared the features of both instantly. Other functions included allowing customers to place their own (suitably tagged) phones on the surface and browse a list of tariffs, ring tones and other items they could buy by simply scrolling through an image list then dragging and dropping the item on their phone.

Several people could use the surface at the same time because the technology recognizes many points of contact simultaneously, so one customer could be choosing a new handset and tariff while another browsed ring tones in a completely separate “transaction”. The surface, which runs on the Windows Vista operating system, uses cameras underneath the surface of the table to read optical tags. 

IBM Immersive Retailing
IBM research has found that a key reason customers recommend a store to others is the shopping experience, and technology can "wow" a consumer, making the experience exciting and memorable.

To demonstrate this, IBM showcased several products from their “immersive retailing” initiative, including Sensory Box – a Virtual Reality product demonstrating 3D images of clothes being modelled in a fashion show in Milan. As models walked down the runway, perfume, purses, shoes and other accessories appeared to be flying toward the viewer complete with music and smells. As the model held out a very expensive leather purse, viewers got a 3-D view of it and smelled the fine leather.

Through the use of 3-D technology and virtual worlds like “second life” IBM also showed how retailing is moving beyond the walls of the store into the hands of consumers. This initiative is in response to the growing trend of customer-centric retailing where interaction with customers is through touch-points rather than channels. One example of this is where Second Life users walked into virtual stores, saw items from the retailer’s catalogue and were able to create virtual outfits which could be viewed and commented on by friends. This could then be bought by integrating with the retailer’s web site and the garments delivered to the customer’s home.

Interactive 3D holographic media
Also of interest in X08, ProVision showcased the next generation of 3D display technology with their “Holo Vision” product. Using holographic display technology, customers could see 3D rotating images which they can interact with – for example flicking pages in a virtual catalogue, choosing colours and other attributes or even adding the item to a basket for retrieval at a till point.

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