Serving shoppers’ needs in physical stores: Responsive Mirror

BoingBoing has a great video and description of our Responsive Mirror project.  One question they asked when they visited was “with all the problems in the world to tackle, why is PARC inventing technologies for shopping?”  First, PARC is tackling some of the worlds’ greatest challenges with our research in Cleantech, Biomedical, and other focus areas.  Second, one of the biggest drivers of WWW technologies has been e-commerce, and we expect commerce to drive emerging ubiquitous computing technologies as well.

Information technologies for physical shopping?

In just 15 years, the web has all but completely supplanted printed catalogs, newspaper classified ads, and the way we buy books, music and video media. In all that time, why hasn’t there been a corresponding revolution in information technologies for physically shopping in a brick and mortar store?  It’s not that there aren’t technologies in stores today, but that they replicate online capabilities — which misses the point of serving the unique needs of shopping in a physical store.  We see electronic displays with ads and infomercials.  We see mobile phones that can scan bar-codes and display more product information you’d find through an online merchant.  That’s all great, but I can already get that online.  What is it about shopping in a physical store that still draws people out to the malls?

In research we conducted at PARC, we’ve found that there are certain types of information that shoppers need but still cannot get online. Certain kinds of tactile and physical information cannot easily be communicated electronically: texture, fit, drape, flow, movement, light refraction, heft, etc. So, people still visit stores to find out how things feel.  No wonder you can’t get that information online – feelings are difficult to communicate electronically, because they use human sensing modalities that are not easily quantifiable and/or are based on individual subjective perception.

But we can still help shoppers by supplementing their decision-making processes with electronic information.  One example of this class of technologies is the Responsive Mirror, which records images of a person trying on apparel (clothing, jewelry, glasses, hats, etc.) and displays them back to the person.   A shopper no longer needs to try things on repetitively because the images jog her memory of how the apparel felt.

Wei Zhang tests the Responsive Mirror for clothing that he developed with Takashi Matsumoto.

Wei Zhang tests the Responsive Mirror for clothing that he developed with Takashi Matsumoto.

In addition, the images are synchronized to match the orientation of the shopper’s view so she can see how different apparel looks from the same angle.  For example, in the BoingBoing post about the Countertop Responsive Mirror, Lisa Katayama notices that “The flower earrings … look a lot better from the side, but I like the way the lotus roots [earrings] dangle when I’m looking straight ahead”.  With the full-length Responsive Mirror, the images move automatically along with the user as she turns in the mirror without having to deliberately control the image orientation (although she can do that, too).  This means that you don’t have to train anyone to use the Responsive Mirror; they just use the mirror naturally and the system responds appropriately.

Serving the needs of shoppers in physical retail stores doesn’t mean bringing the web into brick-and-mortar stores.  It means understanding what shoppers need to do in the store and inventing new technologies that respond to those needs.



 Editor: Sonal Chokshi

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