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Azure and Kinect Making Inroads Among Retailers

A growing number of retailers are relying on Azure and Kinect to improve in-store and online shopping experiences, according to Microsoft. I spent some time at the Microsoft booth at last week's National Retail Federation show in New York, where company officials showcased advances that are starting to (or poised to) appear in stores.

Microsoft for years has invested heavily in improving retail experiences. The best evidence of that is Microsoft's Retail Experience Center, which is a 20,000-foot facility with individual store experiences meant to allow visitors to see technology under development in a variety of environments -- from coffee shops and electronics stores boutiques that sell clothing, among others. New developments and solutions unveiled at NRF, the retail industry's largest annual gathering of IT professionals, will be brought into the Microsoft Retail Innovation Center, said Martin Ramos, Microsoft's CTO for retail consumer products and services.

I first met Ramos last summer during a two-hour tour of the Redmond facility and it was quickly evident he showcased it as if it were his home. "There is so much cool technology," said Ramos, a 10-year Microsoft veteran who had spent decades at Walmart. One "cool" technology that's becoming popular is Bluetooth beacons, which have presence indicators that are accurate within 10cm. Bluetooth beacons can track the movement and activity of a preferred customer via their phones. Ramos said using "micro-location," a retailer can correlate a customer with a product and receive personalized information in a number of different ways.

"That information may be product information, it could be a video that tells me about that product or it could tell me what my price is," Ramos said. "Because it's a personal device, I can hold my phone in front of a product and it will tell me what my price is. Maybe not what everyone else pays but what my price is."

Internet of Things controllers that let stores automate the lighting and use of video displays near shelves were also on display. Microsoft is also working with Intel on IoT sensors that can determine the movement of products on a shelf for inventory tracking purposes.

So where does Azure fit into this? In a growing number of these scenarios, Azure represents all or part of the infrastructure to process the new information. "You almost have to have a cloud component -- it's just much more efficient," Ramos said. "The struggle at the individual store level is what do I put in the cloud, what do I keep in the store? You always want to be able to scan an item and find the piece."

Ramos said Microsoft is working with a growing number of retailers to implement an edge cloud, essentially a small cloud in the store that looks like Azure. "The nice thing about that is we can push our applications into the edge cloud and if the network to the store goes down, the applications are still there locally," he said. "From an Azure standpoint, we still use the cloud to handle all of the data -- security device management and replication data replication [help in the case if the] device goes down in the store we still have copies of everything in the cloud."

In many cases, the key ingredient is Azure Machine Learning and Azure IoT Services to gather information collected from sensors. Microsoft showcased how retailers such as 7 Eleven are using Azure with a tool from Vmob to gain contextual analytics and customer engagement.

 "We're showing how we are taking the streaming information out of all the devices in the store and then pumping that up into the cloud, using a set of services for streaming data analytics for storage using Data Lake technology and then we're also able to query that and expose the analytics on that using Power BI," said Brendan O'Meara, senior director for Microsoft's retail industry segment.

O'Meara talked up how Kinect with a solution by ISV partner AVA Retail is used in store shelves, making it possible to determine within 4 inches of accuracy where a customer's hand is on a shelf, which instructs a monitor to display information, perhaps even a video, about a product, he explained. By monitoring customer activity, sales employees can become aware of customers that may need assistance.

One customer using a similar take on this technology is Mondelez International, which has begun a road show demonstrating vending machines that are interactive and can measure customer sentiment, according to O'Meara. The new vending machine sports a 3D display that provides information on products and promotions including the ability to give free samples. Its Azure IoT Dashboard tracks inventory and alerts field technicians when a machine isn't working properly.

That should make people think twice about kicking those machines when they don't work.

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 01/29/2016 at 1:24 PM


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