It came out of nowhere: A muffled, mechanical voice with electronica undertones called out “Hel-lo there.” It was leering down at me and a few other eTail West attendees: Over 7’6”, a fiberglass robot straight out of a Transformers movie with giant glowing blue eyes and dark mechanical fingers that looked as if they had 300 psi of hydraulic force – enough to crush a car.
Of course, this robot was a ContentSquare-emblazoned suit with a person inside, but the subsequent conversation was surreal. “Can I take a picture?” a fellow attendee blurted out. “Cer-tain-ly. Step ov-er here for a nice-ly lit shot,” in staccato English with the eerie, deep mechanical voice. The neurons in my head started firing.
Suppose this robot was real? The technology is mostly here. We have natural language processing, basic AI functionality, robotic prosthetics, centralized controllers. Now – how about if we gave it a bit more capability – perhaps even manage basic functions in a retail environment. How about pick and pack capabilities, identifying objects on store shelves and labeling processes. What about moving it to the front room and engaging with actual customers? I’m sure it could handle basic questions such as where to find my size 34 jeans or directions to the restroom. Add a camera or two and it becomes a surveillance device as well – mobile and dynamic for loss prevention and security. Maybe even a checkout with a torso based kiosk to scan items and a POS.
I interviewed companies from a variety of verticals – travel, retail, energy, clothing, financial services – and spoke to thought leaders in innovation theory to help I&O leaders solve a series of problems: How can we innovate using customer-facing interaction technologies such as mobile devices, robotics, digital signage, and virtual reality (VR)? How can we establish a device innovation lab (DIL) to help technology and business leaders at our company develop technology-infused, customer-obsessed strategies? And what are the success factors for DILs – from mission statement to staffing to key performance indicators?
In the context of my report, a device innovation lab is an a in-house space for designing, experimenting, piloting, and deploying device-based innovation projects. Done right, a DIL can differentiate your business's digital business efforts in impressive ways. Take, for example, Lowes' robotic retail associate, OSHBot.
By "robots," we mean all forms of automation technologies, including those that conductphysical tasks, intellectual tasks, or customer service tasks (which mix elements of both physical and intellectual activities, but which constitute a distinct category in the age of the customer). Indeed, some impressive new technologies are becoming incredibly useful in a variety of organizational settings. Take, for example, Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot, seen in the video below. Unlike traditional industrial robots, it's safe for workers to be around Baxter -- and it's imperative, too. Because software engineers don't program Baxter; human colleagues simply move the robot's arm to teach it new actions, and it learns in real time.