Store clerks beware: This Segway has a scanner gun

Computer vision and 3D imaging are helping robots find new uses outside the factory.

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A scanning robot from 4D Retail Technology can scan an entire grocery store in about an hour.

The reason you're hearing more about robots these days has a lot to do with non-robotic technologies. After all, for the last fifty years mechanical engineers have been able to make some pretty snazzy machines that move on their own. It's only with the rise of complementary sensor and computing technologies that robots are starting to show their true usefulness outside of factories.

Computer vision and imaging has been one of the most important of those advances, and it's allowing robots to do all kinds of cool things. Case in point: A company called 4D Retail Technology wants to ensure that no retail jockey will ever again have to endure the indignity of the scanner gun walk of shame.

The company just announced something it's calling the 4D Space Genius, a robotic imaging platform powered by Segway that can scan any store in less than an hour, imaging every product and barcode in every aisle in ultra-high resolution and 3D. Once completed the 4D Space Genius scan provides retailers and manufacturers with the precise location of everything in the store, as well as all instances of price tag discrepancy, missing price tags, and empty shelving.

During the launch, the company announced the rollout of demonstration units for large chain stores across North America and Europe, so keep your eyes open for one of these bad boys at a store near you.

The appeal of an automated scanner is clear: The robot doesn't take smoke breaks, won't come in late, and doesn't need holidays or overtime. It saves retailers both time and money by eliminating the necessity for labor-intensive manual store checks. As the robot travels down each aisle, it automatically compiles and processes huge amounts of 'big data', producing a dataset that makes it easy for retailers to identify every product on their shelves, ensure accurate pricing, monitor stock levels, and analyze product geoinformation. Big grocery chains pay close attention to that information, regularly shuffling displays and products to best take advantage of customer traffic.

One of the cooler features of this Segway with a price gun is that it can be used to generate an interactive, 3D map of a store, precisely depicting each product exactly as it is displayed on the shelf. Theoretically a store could use that map online, allowing people to move through the aisles virtually. I'm spitballing here, but if a store manager uploaded fresh scan of her store every morning and linked it with an online retail system, customers could theoretically go shopping online. Groceries could be delivered from the local store or picked up pre-bagged.

It's a good example of how robots are being integrated with IoT, logistics, and POS solutions to change how businesses interface with customers.

"The 4D Space Genius is an all-inclusive system that ties super-intelligent robotics to retail, revolutionizing the way retailers collect, organise, and analyze information," says Dean Stark, CEO of 4D Retail Technology Corp. "In the world of retail, decisions regarding shelf space and product placement are primarily based on old data and broad estimations, rather than real information and store specific data. With the 4D Space Genius, retailers will be able to begin decision making with 'I know' instead of 'I think.'"

The obvious loser in all this? My teenage self, who had a lot of fun in high school making believe his work-issued scanner gun was a laser cannon.

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