Through the Digital Wormhole: Creating Virtual Value

How do you create new value? Is it possible to push your physical products through what I call “the digital wormhole” to create virtual components of value for your products? A look at the evolution of the way people enjoy music suggests that the answer is ‘yes’. Twenty-five years ago, people listened to records on turntables, a very analog and physical process. Then, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they moved to CDs and CD players—a digital process, but still mostly a physical reality. Now, people listen to online audio with services such as Spotify* that give them access to millions of tracks, allow browsing, social network interaction and offer recommendations based on listening habits. Much of the value that these services provide is created in the digital domain—it’s a virtual value. When creating new products, designers should ask themselves up front: how much of this product’s value will be physical, and how much will be digital?

For example, an invisible, conductive ink called T+Ink* that can be read with a capacitive touchscreen, is making it possible to think about linking products to digital content by simply touching the products to a screen. Over time, you could add digital value to physical products just by linking them through that interface.

As discussed in my previous blog, making things smart has the potential to add lots of value. The question is—how do you do it? Today, designing and building smart objects is still harder than it needs to be, but it’s going to get exponentially easier and become more and more attractive to designers as computing continues to shrink and drop in price, and as design tools become more sophisticated. One of the ways this will happen is with easy-to-use building blocks such as the Intel® Edison compute module, a computer on a tiny board that has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and connects to the cloud. Or the button-sized Intel Curie platform1 that makes it easy to add smart wearable capability to garments and other items. These types of platforms enable product designers to start incorporating ‘smart’ tech into their products without having to staff up with a small army of hardware and software engineers.

Smart Technology: Retail Applications

What other types of retail applications might benefit from the use of smart technology? Think about smart infrastructure—store shelves that understand not only what product is being set upon them, but also who is standing in front of them; shelves that  help retailers understand more about shopper behavior, that offer more information to shoppers and that even start to broker the conversation between product manufacturers and shoppers. This type of information exchange will be a boon to manufacturers and retailers, as will the ability to do dynamic pricing at the shelf.

Putting smart technology into the physical space of retail has the potential to make an enormous difference. But even more dramatic are the changes likely to result as, in the next five to eight years, computers are able to see, hear and understand more of the world around them. This trend toward closing the gap between the digital and physical worlds has been occurring for twenty-five years or more, but now it’s beginning to yield some very interesting possibilities for retail.

Visual recognition technology will free robots to coexist safely among us—a trend that’s already started. No longer trapped in cages because of their inability to see (which makes them hazardous to human safety), customer service and inventory robots are at work in trials at California retail stores.

Drone technology, for use in warehouses and in making deliveries, is attracting interest from a number of companies with a desire to smooth operations and deliver products not just the same day, but the next hour.

Digital value will also be created in retail via augmented and mixed reality that overlays a digital layer on the physical world. Shoppers will be able to more easily imagine, for example, how a new kitchen will look in their homes or how clothing will look on them using such technology.

Technology is advancing in ways that offer enormous opportunities for solving business problems in retail. For further discussion on how it’s being deployed to optimize for specific outcomes, check back in this space in the weeks to come.

Steve Brown

Senior Industry Advisor, Retail and Hospitality

Intel Corporation

1 This device has not been authorized as required by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission. This device is not, and may not be, offered for sale or lease, sold or leased, until authorization is obtained.

Curie, Intel and the Intel logo are trademarks of Intel Corporation in the U.S. and/or other countries.

* Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.

© 2016 Intel Corporation