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Despite advances in online shopping, there are still some things people like to buy in person. And no matter how advanced ecommerce gets, the tactile act of shopping in stores will continue to entice many consumers.

That's why Intel is partnering with Microsoft to help deliver and improve digital in-store advertisements. But consumers may not be excited to see what the new technology will know about them.

Intel and Microsoft aren't the first ones to use this technology, but their adoption of it means that smart-digital signs may soon be more widely distributed in shopping centers around America. 

Speaking last week at CES, Intel CEO Paul Otellini made clear his company's belief that digital technology is no longer chained to the desktop.

"Computing is no longer confined to your computer, it's everywhere," he said. "Advances in connectivity, intuitive user interfaces, immersive content and computer chip performance have allowed computing to move into new areas."

Some of those new areas are shopping outlets not previously known for their impressive connectivity displays. While digital billboards have long been a part of the shopping experience, they are more often used to update advertising quickly than to interact with consumers. Intel is hoping to change that.

The company demonstrated its new device at CES. The 7-foot-6-inch billboard has a camera and two displays. One featured a conventional LCD panel, and the other a transparent holographic touch-screen that can display words and images in the viewer's line of site.

The new system, equipped with an Intel Core i7 processor and built on the Windows 7 operating system, is expected to be ready in the second quarter of 2010. Microsoft and Intel are not planning to sell the signs, but rather create a platform that could become the standard for those looking to develop in-store signage.

According to Joe Jensen, general manager of Intel's Embedded Computing Division:

“As stores seek more competitive advantages over online retailers, digital signage has become a valuable technology for dispersing targeted and interactive content to shoppers. We therefore designed the Intel Intelligent Digital Signage Concept to show that retailers can engage and interact with consumers in a more personal and compelling manner through new usage models such as augmented reality and interactive product explorations, which in turn could yield an increase in revenue and customer loyalty.”

Some of the new features are to be expected. Multi-touch screens will let consumers explore merchandise and shopping areas, submit feedback, read customer reviews and share their experiences with social media and mobile phone integration.

But it's the user interaction with the sign that starts getting a bit more interesting. According to The Wall Street Journal:

"The sign can recognize whether the viewer is male or female and present offers for products more likely to appeal to them, the company said. If a user touched an item, for example, the sign could send the user's smart phone a coupon with a discount on the item and a map to its location in a store."

Getting into user interaction (and retention) in store could initiate real world hesitation with this product. Apparently, the current technology won't be scanning users' irises. But it can track what people have viewed and use facial recognition if users have allowed retailers to photograph their face previously.

For consumers — and privacy advocates — concerned with being tracked online, being tracked in person could add an additional layer of creepiness.

Digitally tracking the sex of shoppers could bevery problematic. For instance, on cold days like today, how exactly is a sign going to tell the difference between a 5'10" woman and a 5'10" inch man bundled in a puffer coat wearing a wool hat? The potential for confusion on this may be higher than the potential uses.

Not to mention that knowing the sex of a mall viewer is not neccessarily useful. Marketers already have a 50/50 chance of getting that one right. And considering how fast people walk past a sign in a mall, the likelihood of sending the wrong message is pretty high. Meaning that the messages can't be too tailored to sex too much anyhow because there is a lot of room for offense if brands drill down and give really specific sex related advertising.

According to Intel, the signs can pass data anonymously to advertisers to help with marketing pitches, but it's harder to make the anonymous argument when taking a scan of someone's face. That's not to say that there aren't digital advancements that would be welcomed by consumers in-store.

Microsoft and Intel are positioning themselves well to corner the market on in-store technologies. But everyone working here should tread carefully with implementation.

Because consumers aren't usually keen to be subjected to technologies used to track terrorists, especially when the security threat could come after they use them. 

Image: Intel

Meghan Keane

Published 12 January, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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Multi-touch screens will let consumers explore merchandise and shopping areas, submit feedback, read customer reviews and share their experiences with ...

almost 7 years ago

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