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Photos: This Microsoft-powered store uses Kinect, Azure to show you the future of shopping

If you want to take a walk round the shop of the future, a good place to start is a supermarket located in the Bicocca district of Milan, Italy. There, thanks to a blend of gaming technologies, IoT and cloud computing, you can seamlessly interact with the products that interest you and make better buying choices.

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Topic: Innovation
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Microsoft's Azure and Kinect motion sensors

Filled with Kinect motion sensors, computers, displays and a giant screen, all powered by Microsoft's Azure cloud service, the store has been designed to offer a "new customer experience" and provide a glimpse of what tomorrow's shops might look like.

The 600 square meter (6,500 square feet) supermercato del futuro, or supermarket of the future, was inaugurated late last year by Coop Italia, Italy's largest supermarket chain, and recently visited by ZDNet.

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Supermarket test lab

The Supermarket of the Future is the continuation of the technology that Coop Italia first showcased at EXPO Milan 2015. The concept was designed by architect and MIT professor Carlo Ratti, and implemented by INRES, Accenture, and Avanade using Microsoft technology.

After EXPO 2015, Coop Italia decided to test the concept in a more demanding environment. "For us, this supermarket is like a lab where we try out ideas. After EXPO we wanted to show that these ideas work, even in a real-life environment," Gabriele Tubertini, CIO of Coop Italia, tells ZDNet.

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Digital mirrors

The big 'digital mirrors' suspended above 16 shelves in Coop Italia's Supermarket of the Future are activated when customers point to an item. Kinect recognizes the gesture and, as a result, the screen shows information such as the nutritional values of that food, its origin and, in certain cases, even clues about the allergens or the journey that brought the product to the shelf.

The total cost of the investment for the Supermarket of the Future was around €4.5m ($4.9m).

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Samsung LED monitors

Things are sometimes not what they appear. That's also the case with the digital mirrors in Milan's Supermarket of the Future. The information offered to customers by each mirror is actually produced by three Samsung LED monitors. The shopper doesn't see them because they have been hidden behind slightly reflective transparent glass sheets.

"The three leading ideas behind the project are: first, to design a supermarket as a place where people also go to meet other people; secondly, to use technology to let the products tell their stories; and thirdly, to allow interaction with products without the help of other devices," Coop Italia CIO Gabriele Tubertini explains.

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Array of technologies

Within the trapezoid-shaped boxes that support the displays, there's an array of technologies that make the special Supermarket of the Future's experience possible.

Inside each box there are: a 12-port Cisco Hub, six NUC PCs and six Kinects, a total of 13 pieces of hardware. As the tops of the boxes are open, the heat they produce rises and causes no overheating issues.

It is not just the shoppers who can benefit from the technologies installed in the Milan supermarket. Coop Italia also gets better insights into what its customers want.

"From the interactions registered by the Kinects, we can understand which products the consumers want more information about. By matching that data with sales information, we can derive a deeper understanding of their preferences," Coop Italia CIO Gabriele Tubertini says.

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Cloud or on-premise software

Here, information about a chocolate egg is displayed on one of the digital mirrors at Coop Italia's Supermarket of the Future in Milan.

The system that brings the information to the mirrors can work in two ways: either fully in the cloud or with on-premise software. In the first case, once the Kinect recognizes the product that interests the customer, the NUC PC goes looking for the corresponding information in the cloud and then shows it on the display. This option, Coop Italia says, has only been experimented with in a test environment.

The actual version of the system currently in place in Milan relies on a small application installed on each NUC PC, which contains all the information related to the products on sale. The app is updated four times a day.

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Future installations

The Supermarket of the Future is the first of its kind developed by Coop Italia but it won't be the last, even though future installations might not be exact replicas of the original.

"We now have a cloud architecture that can be adapted in different contexts with different technologies. We can imagine, for instance, a store where in place of a Kinect there's a camera that triggers some kind of interaction when a product is put in front of it," Coop Italia CIO Gabriele Tubertini comments.

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Integrated touchscreens

Besides the eight digital mirrors, the Supermarket of Future employs 46 additional touchscreens that are integrated into refrigerators and shelves.

All the user has to do is place the product's barcode in front of the screen and navigate through the information displayed on the monitor.

"The most difficult part of the project was not related to technology but finding the right recipe to mesh the three mainstays of the project: hardware, software, and the physical design of the supermarket. That was the key to creating something new," Tiziana Olivieri, Enterprise & Partner group director at Microsoft Italia, a partner of the project, tells ZDNet.

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Product information

Customers of the Supermarket of the Future get to see various types of product information: nutritional values, provenance, related products, promotions, and, for some foods, even allergens.

The system is fed with data coming from two main sources. The first is the database of Coop Italia private label products, which contains detailed information that goes beyond what, under Italian and European laws, has to be shown on labels.

The second source, for all the products not branded Coop, is the Immagino Catalog, managed and maintained by GS1 Italy, which includes most fast-moving consumer goods sold in Italy.

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Real-time data

A huge screen is also positioned on the main wall of the supermarket and clearly visible from any angle. Right now the information it displays consists of messages about Coop Italia's mission. In the near future the screen will show real-time data about sales and the products that are drawing most interest from customers.

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Adaptive tech

The word Sicurezza, or safety, appears on the giant screen visible from every angle in the Supermarket of the Future.

One of the core ideas behind the project is that technology should not be invasive but must adapt to the needs of consumers.

"In this project, technology is just an enabler of a new paradigm of consumer experience. It doesn't get in the way by asking the consumer to use specific devices or perform actions that they wouldn't do otherwise. With Kinects, they just have to perform familiar gestures, like indicating or touching a product," says Tiziana Olivieri, Enterprise & Partner Group director at Microsoft Italia.

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Overall store design

Technology is not the only defining aspect of the Supermarket of the Future. The whole design is meant to give customers a different feel. The shelves' height, for instance, is significantly lower than in an ordinary food store.

"The shelves are less invasive and allow the client to always have a clear view of the whole space. We want this supermarket to be a place they deem pleasant and where people also go to meet other people," Coop Italia CIO Gabriele Tubertini says.

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