By Michael Garel
A few years ago, my wife and I frequently indulged in the guilty pleasure of browsing the shelves of our local Austin electronics store in search of the latest gizmos and gadgets.
Then, gradually, we shifted almost exclusively to online shopping. So did a lot of other people. Which is a huge problem for brick-and-mortar retailers.
On the flip side, that trend also created an opportunity for me to get into business. My company, eyeQ, which I launched with a partner in 2012, makes software that helps retailers understand customers so they can serve them better.
Today, we’re tapping the power of IBM’s Watson to add computing intelligence to our software. We don’t have to invent our own cognitive technology; we run our software on IBM’s Watson Developer Cloud and choose the Watson components we want to use. It’s like pulling items off a shelf in a virtual software shop.
For starters, we’re using the Watson Personality Insights Service to flesh out portraits of shoppers in stores. It’s the first in a series of Watson beta services to become generally available for commercial use via Bluemix, IBM’s cloud marketplace. There we found thousands of other innovators, like us, exploring ways to embed Watson’s smarts into their businesses. Building out our software in this cloud environment allowed us to rapidly test, develop and integrate new Watson capabilities into our existing app. We’re also looking to integrate another beta service, Watson Visual Recognition.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This adventure started a few years back. I was running product development for a rugged tablet company in Austin but I wanted to go into business for myself, so I was studying for an MBA at The University of Texas-Austin. I got interested in the potential for video analytics technologies. That led me to retailers. I thought video analytics could help them achieve the holy grail of retailing–knowing what’s going on in their stores in real time.
I had an idea for a business but I didn’t know how to code, so I recruited a really smart technical guy, Jim Wang, to be my CTO. Good choice. He moved with amazing speed to develop in-store marketing technology, which got us into the game.
Our product, eyeQinsights, runs on kiosks in stores. We use video analytics and touch-screen technology to paint a portrait of each customer’s approximate age, gender, attentiveness and response to what they’re seeing and learning. This information helps brands and retailers craft personalized experiences for individual shoppers–offering them customized information, advertising and discounts.
We’re running pilots in a variety of situations, including the electronics department of a large store, an auto dealership, a bike shop, and a fast-food restaurant.
We got interested in the Watson Personality Insights Service because we saw it could provide an added layer of knowledge and insights about shoppers. The technology enables a deeper understanding of individual personality traits by analyzing information they make available via public mediums such as blogs, Twitter and more, to draw inferences about their interests and tastes. Right now we’re testing it with cyclists who interact with the technology via a 42-inch screen. They type in their Twitter handles and, based on past Tweets, the system suggests the best bike for them. People love it.
We’re still in the experimental stages, but I think there’s tremendous potential for using Watson technologies in stores. Watson can help us provide a competitive edge for retailers that they sorely need.
I know for sure that shopping habits can change. I shifted almost exclusively online, but now I’m switching back. On recent trips to my nearby electronics store, I bought noise-canceling headphones and a couple of table computers for the office. If this can happen to me, it can happen to a lot of people. And it had better. The future of my business depends on it.
To read more about the new Watson Personality Insights Service, click here.