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IBM Tests 'Augmented Reality' Shopper App

Shoppers Can Stream Information on Product, Price and Social Feedback While in Store

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Marketers have tried targeting consumers in stores with QR codes and barcode scanners that so far have gotten limited traction. Now IBM is testing a new approach, dubbed augmented reality, which is a bit like applying search or a personalized version of Google Goggles to the world of physical store shelves.

The prototype app, being tested with some yet-unnamed large retailers in the U.S., can be downloaded by shoppers in-store at the onset of a shopping trip or beforehand to their smartphones or tablets. It lets them describe what they're looking for in terms of ingredients they want more of (e.g. whole grains) or less or none of (e.g. gluten or lactose). It also lets them input that they want biodegradable packaging or say what ingredients or products they want to assemble for a meal.

"You specify the things you're interested in, and then using your device and the video camera on the device, as you scan the product the app will recognize it and superimpose the information you're looking for on the product itself," said John Kennedy, VP-corporate marketing for IBM. "Therefore, it brings more information to bear on the decision."

The app, developed by IBM researchers in Haifa, Israel, "marries the wealth of information on the web so the shopping experience becomes more informative and personal to help them make better decisions," Mr. Kennedy said. "It opens questions about what can happen in the relationship between the retailer and shopper and ultimately the [brand] marketer."

Shoppers can register using either their telephone number or loyalty-card number, then create or update a profile of preferences. The one-time setup will let them receive personalized service to help with dietary needs, pricing, environmental or religious preferences that will be indicated as they scan shelves with their phones.

Mr. Kennedy believes the augmented-reality app may be better received by shoppers than QR Codes or barcode scanning because it's relatively effortless, involving simply holding up a device while walking the aisles or look at products -- similar to "something we do every day. The information is embedded on the product itself, so it's more like a natural behavior," he said.

Once they register, shoppers will be identified by either their telephone number or their loyalty cards (so it's not necessarily limited just to retailers with existing card programs). Shoppers can create or update a profile of preferences that let them receive instant personalized information to address dietary needs, pricing, environmental or religious preferences. Mr. Kennedy said marketers or stores may ultimately make special offers available via the augmented-reality app at shelf based on shoppers' expressed interests.

The app is programmed to let the camera on the mobile device recognize products according to shapes, colors and other features, using advanced image processing. The retailer's computer system, powered by IBM Smarter Commerce software, will deliver information to the mobile device.

Another advantage compared to some other in-store marketing technologies is that it involves little investment in new infrastructure, since the working equipment is supplied mainly by the shopper, and it doesn't require human installation of new materials regularly across thousands of stores.

"And the information you see is a function of what you're looking for," Mr. Kennedy said, as opposed to something marketers or retailers pre-selected for shoppers. "And the other piece that 's kind of interesting is that there's the ability to connect to your social stream, and if someone in your network had a positive or negative comment about the product, that could also be embedded in the information as you're scanning the product."

Mr. Kennedy declined to say which retailers are testing the app or when it might become widely available.

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