I was invited to a Microsoft forum on advanced retail display technology last week and came away with a strange sense that, although the future is going to look a lot like BladeRunner's stifling advertising environment, it could also be useful and powerful for the customer, not just the advertiser. We have to think about how to display information in a way that is important to purchase decision-making, not just try to tell people why they should buy, buy, buy!
The standout technology at the event, to my eye, was LevelVision's "horizontal signage," which include floor, table/countertop and ceiling displays. Among interesting displays that could be manipulated by waving one's hand or projected onto a retailer's window, LevelVision attracted my attention with the potential to add interactivity to many more settings, from the restaurant to the retail countertop to the gym and sidewalk. The company's patents cover a wide range of hypothetical applications, since the screens can capture information as well as simply display video.
What if, for example, you were able to weigh someone as they were looking at a pair of pants? Or take their temperature by having them place their hand on a tabletop display in the doctor's waiting room? In either case, you'd be prepared to ask the next round of questions you need to better serve them before an human intervenes. You could take five or 10 minutes out of a trip to the doctor with these screens, if they were placed in the waiting room or, even, in the consultation room for use by patients as they wait for the doc. Fitting clothes with interactive systems that display and capture data would transform the way off-the-shelf clothing was sold—no more sifting through hangars to find a good fit.
LevelVision has tested its floor-level displays in malls and college bookstores, seeing substantial increases in traffic and purchasing where the displays were able to capture a passer-by's attention or engage shoppers in the store with a particular offer.
Jim Currie, the CEO of LevelVision, told me that he envisions a new kind of medium in these horizontal displays. It starts with showing advertising and offers on the LCD panels at floor- and counter-level, but can grow to encompass all sorts of engagement as the initial novelty of the technology passes (the initial novelty, based on customer responses in tests, is enough to kickstart this medium). At some point, simply showing pictures and ads on the floor don't keep the attention and shoppers will expect to find offers that actually apply to them or the products nearby when they look at the floor.
And look at the floor we do. If you shop, you tend to look at the floor while waiting for service or thinking about a purchase. This is why we describe ourselves as "grounded," after all—we're always looking down to get out bearings, to make sure we are going to trip and fall, or to avoid other people who are also stuck in the awkward situation of waiting.
In another example of the growing opportunity to fill the environment with information, 3M Digital Signage showed a very cool glass tape that can be affixed to a window to provide a brilliant display that can be seen in direct light. (Home theater folks should check this out for use in the backyard, where you could show movies day or night.)
Imagine, however, walking into a mall and seeing information on the windows of the stores. If you were looking for something, like a Nintendo Wii, and the availability of the Wii was shown on the windows of the stores you pass, you'd be in a position to shop for price and add-ons before entering any of the stores.
Here's where the question of a what a "medium" is becomes interesting. We tend to think of media as telling stories, like a television show such as ABC's Lost does, or as a commercial that manages to convince or entertain. But when we get close to the customer and close to the point of purchase, like these displays do, there is a much greater opportunity in simply providing the information that can become part of a customer's own story. Because we are story-making animals, almost any data can be put to use by the individual. Being able to recommend something that complements a purchase makes the purchase more attractive. Getting a deal that was offered to you in line, that others didn't take advantage of, makes a good story (e.g., "You should see the free Virginia Tech mug I got at the bookstore." or "I got this for 10 percent off, but only because I asked for it.")
The real changes come in how we can use these types of displays to make the economics of a transaction more transparent. What if the countertop at the 7-11 could total the calories and breakdown the nutrients in your purchase for you? Would Americans be quite as fat as they are if McDonald's used its countertops to help them eat better?
Sure, we think no marketer wants to reveal that their products aren't quite as good for people as they'd like, but in an environment where the customer is increasingly in control because of growing access to information, the revolution in marketing will come, like it or not. Companies will find it pays to make all the data available to customers and, if people don't want to buy fattening foods or environment-damaging products, those companies will actually change their products in response.
Being able to get that feedback in a structured way, through applications that interact with customers at the point-of-sale, is the most promising chance for marketers to engage with customers when the transaction counts. Interactive displays are able to bring new data to the buying decision, make connections that might be missed or annoying if the counter clerk slowed the transaction, or just to ask one survey question about why someone bought what they did that day.
So, back to BladeRunner. In the world Harrison Ford was chasing replicants, all the signage was of the television commercial variety that bathed people in soothing or alluring images. The more likely—at least, the more positive application of ambient and, as LevelVision calls it, "proxemic" marketing—is that customers will be able to demand more of the seller before, during and after the transaction based on their increasing access to information. When you have more to offer, you can also charge more, discount more actively and upsell conveniently.