NRF2017 Impressions: Lotsa Actionable Analytics

January 17, 2017 by Dave Haynes

NRF is not a digital signage show. There are lots of signage vendors at the show – with booths or just walking around. It’s a retail tech show full of stuff that will be largely unfamiliar if you live and work in the digital signage bubble.

But it’s a valuable show to walk if retail is your vertical and you want to understand what technologies are in play or just emerging. Or if you are like me and just want to keep tabs on complementary evolving and emerging technologies. I don’t know if this reflects the show as a whole, but I saw less whiz-bang stuff and much more of a focus on products and services that actually improved store operations and shopper experiences.

I’d say the biggest theme for the show, that I saw, was about analytics. I saw dozens and dozens of companies showing some sort of solution that existed to use sensors and mine data to develop a real sense of what’s happening in a store, both in trending and in real time.

There were lots of companies using video analytics – most of it just face pattern detection. But I spoke with a couple of companies that are doing facial recognition – based on loyalty programs. So if you opt-in, they’re logging your face and putting it into a database. That means when you go to that retailer’s store, the system is not counting and logging and maybe messaging a general profile, it’s counting and logging and pitching you.

I saw start-ups with analytics systems, all the way up to this freaky lab experiment Google was showing that used a type of radar for real-time analytics. They are testing something called LIDAR – which is a bit like radar, but with lasers – as a means to scan a physical area like a retail floorspace and provide actionable real-time data on audience composition and behavior. LIDAR is what’s used, for example, atop Google’s self-driving cars to scan the surroundings (so it’s fast and scanning shoppers would be a walk in the park for this tech).

I saw lots of companies show analytics that used facial geometry to estimate viewer emotions, and I still can’t imagine that ever being much more than a trade show parlor trick.

NEC has had camera-based analytics coming out of Japan for several years, but what I saw at the company’s NRF booth was a suite of capabilities that would stand on their own as a third-party business. I’ve not seen that with the other display guys and certainly not the CMS companies.

This stuff matters in the context of digital signage because data can not only trigger more relevant content, but also inform how people are responding to content in terms of viewing times and where displays make the most sense.

I was impressed and a bit surprised by the way Samsung pulled together a customer journey demo in its booth that pretty seamlessly tied together screens, interactive and mobile. You’d think cross-platform stuff would be second nature to a company like Samsung, but in companies that big, phones and displays can and have been silos. But this was pretty seamless and something I’d assume will show up at more trade shows like ISE and DSE – as it starts to address what’s been a largely elusive idea of big screens and little screens working together.

The demo I saw worked across and between big screens, tablets and phones, and was integrated with Samsung Pay – its mobile payment system that works with NFC and, interestingly, with magnetic stripe card readers, without the need to swipe.

I liked the use of LG’s stretch LCDs to make an attention grabbing video wall at Convergent’s booth, and was impressed with how Convergent developed software to largely automate back of house and front of house signage content for a lux apparel retailer, drawing data and images dynamically to render presentations about what’s trending in sales on the floor.

I saw several companies using LCDs and LEDs are shelf-edge marketing strips, some time to analytics. The sub 2mm strips used by one company were coated and harden so the little LED lights would not be destroyed, but up close, the content looked like crap. A 2 mm pitch LED display is best seen from something like 20 feet back. LCDs look MUCH better.

There are numerous companies showing the whole lift and learn thing – which has been around forever. One company was showing nicely integrated shelves that had LCDs, but when I asked, they didn’t have a cost but said the RFID interrogator/scanner thingie inside that shelf was going to be $300+. Then add the cost of the LCD strip, and on and on.

Good luck with that.

What was better were things like the smart mannequin demo’d by Scala, which had a set of obvious sensors points to touch on a mannequin wearing high-performance athletic apparel. Touch the top, and the adjacent display served relevant content. Simple and cost-effective, and something that could be easily repurposed.

I’m now enamored, somewhat, with virtual reality as a store design tool, having seen InVRsion up close. VERY photorealistic. There were numerous companies showing VR, but the Italian start-up had the best looking stuff – to my unschooled eyes. This is NOT VR that anyone expects a consumer to use in a store. It’s a way to build and tweak a store design and contents – very realistically – without physically building a test store in a warehouse somewhere – which costs a lot more and takes far more time to build and adjust.

I saw a LOT of electronic shelf labels … waaaay more than the last time I was at NRF. They get better all the time, in terms of clarity and color support. I saw bigger ones, and some that had little LED lights embedded in them so that someone could scan a representative product at a station and find the shelf down the aisle where there was stock, via flashing lights. Samsung, by the way, has a subsidiary now that has ESLs.

Is NRF a show suppliers should be at? Well, maybe. It’s big, running over several floors, and I never got to everything in a day and half. So little booths can get lost. I also think you have to be in a state that you have a good list of prospects and customers who are pre-booked, as opposed to hanging a banner and hoping companies stop and have a look.

On the other hand, if retail digital signage is your thing – this is about as target-rich an environment as you could imagine.

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