A combination of affordable technologies allows for neighborhood supermarkets to offer a virtual expansion with the offering of a department store. After replacing the actual market square and the shopping street, neighborhood supermarkets have become a dominating presence yet are nevertheless a systemic ‘attractor’ in the way logistic networks organize, by both bundling the range of offerings in an individual store as well as bundling individual stores into a supermarket chain. With the increasingly tangible impact of online shopping their exclusive position as an all-purpose outlet is fading and instead of fighting evolution the best strategy is to embrace non-locality and actively shape the future. Not only has the internet changed the flow of information, people can do price comparisons while shopping, they can switch to another store with a mouse-click and they can have it delivered at home when it is most suitable for them. Add improvements in transportation, energy efficiency, designer materials, packaging and conservation, and community-based joint purchasing and delivery, and a future where “the last mile” is not an issue anymore is nearby.
Mobile computing is often misunderstood as the limited case of cellphones and pda’s, but it involves much more than that due to the level of portability, the reduced infrastructural dependencies, that wireless networking offer. Instead of a computer being restricted to a fixed box on a table, it is becoming more and more elusive and ubiquitous. With the advent of cloud-based infrastructures and Software-as-a-Service what used to be physical components are now becoming increasingly abstract, logical, and instead of a device the computer self is digitized into a hierarchical assembly of serviced functions.
‘Augmented Reality’ is receiving lots of attention because of the possibility to project all kinds of information onto the physical world, yet it makes more sense looking at the whole spectrum from ‘actuality’ to ‘virtuality’. This involving the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. While this may seem to involve emerging technologies, this is actually a maturation of some four decades of progress which has started to move into mainstream adoption. Four grades can be identified, naked reality, augmented reality (virtual projections onto the real world), augmented virtuality (merging physical objects into virtual worlds) and virtual reality (total simulation). Choosing the right combination of technologies offers a low-cost low-risk way to engage as it continues to evolve.
With the proper design principles implemented one can utilize a combination of hardware devices and software functions, so that a system can be architecting in such a way it as pluggable and interchangeable as possible. In fact it can simply follow the proven design principles from mainframe computing; reliability (fault tolerance), availability (uptime) and serviceability (minimal disruption of maintenance and repairs). Instead of an expensive apparatus a multitude of cheap alternatives can be used while the smarts have been offloaded onto a standard computer system. Technologies have advanced to the stage that a combination of a small projectors can assemble a crystal clear picture as an adaptive overlay of images coordinated by software for digital holography, while introducing redundancy by using a multitude of cheap projectors. Similarly a “redundant array of independent” cameras can be used to capture multi-focal 3D images in real time so that people can use gesture based controls. Using software that has matured in scientific circles and computer-generated imagery some significant improvements have become possible such as cheap microscopes as well as accurate image processing of telescopes. Astronomical interferometry has matured to the extend where an array of telescopes act together generate high-resolution pictures of distant stars, while digital holography is replacing optical lenses with a smart overlay of blurry or out-of-focus image streams. Instead of using a single $10.000 camera, why not use a thousand $10 wireless image sensors and combine the visuals in a razor sharp 360° 3D image. Regular computer network speeds are fast enough to carry image streams of some five HDTV movies, so taking all this together gives a fair set of ingredients to set up a low risk environment with 2 or 3 ‘augmented virtuality’ booths or cubicles can be set up in most supermarkets to extend the offering with a home-delivery variation of a department store. Centrally located department stores can broaden their functionality by acting as a pick-up center for customers, express mail services, or even collaborative p2p delivery networks which have arisen in some countries to utilize unused overcapacity of private transport.
While cubicles can be uplifted to smart-booths by not only providing gesture-based interaction, but also allowing projective controls or a tape-measure for choosing the right size clothes, bicycle or furniture, the ‘screen’ can be mixed with multi-point videoconferencing for customers that would like to be helped by a visual chatbot or call center. Upfront identification via soft biometrics, behaviometrics in combination with identification via a loyalty card will surely ease the check-in and check-out process, as well as keep track of historical significant data for the user so to sustain their experiential continuum. Starting as a sort of guided browsing, by keeping the set up as ‘general purpose’ as possible and by offloading expensive equipment into the network as a digitized version it is even possible to offer a health check or a self-help diagnostic scan, while privacy is ensure by encapsulating the cubicle with anti-sound and projecting vital information in such a way that it is only visible for the people inside the cubicle. Directed sound beams make it increasingly simple to not only measure one’s heartbeat but also the other organ rhythms as used in Asian medical diagnosis, but even ultrasound scans can even be performed with cheap speakers and a set of microphones.
Online commerce is just starting off, and this offers a way to go beyond the website towards unforeseen applications.