At this year’s Expo Milano, a six month universal exhibition of world-changing concepts, Accenture and Coop partnered to show exhibit-goers the future of supermarket technology.
Every few years a country is chosen to host the Universal Exhibition where more than 140 participating countries showcase their take on a different theme.
The theme of Expo Milano 2015 is “feeding the planet, energy for life” and each country has a hub around the expo floor designed to suggest how the world can provide healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone without detriment to the environment.
One of the main attractions was the supermarket of the future, an interactive shopping experience designed by Coop and Accenture to show consumers what a visit to the store will be like in years to come.
Really it should have been called the supermarket of right now, because most of the technology currently exists, the whole supermarket was fully functional. It seemed like the sort of shop Tony Stark might design if given the chance.
Above each section of fresh produce was an interactive screen listing details about the products housed in that particular area.
Inside each of the screens was an Xbox Kinect, which allowed a customer to use hand gestures to highlight a particular food to find out more about it, including its nutritional content, where it came from, its carbon footprint and allergens.
The thermo sensor in the Kinect tracks the arm’s movements to determine which product you’re pointing at and relays the appropriate information.
We did try and see if it would cope with two people pointing at separate items, but it wasn’t quite ready for that yet.
Alongside some of the produce, there was a demo of robotic arms packing and sorting products as people ordered them, and I was told this was in demonstration of sustainability – instead of all produce being on display, some could be kept fresh and delivered to customers when they want and need it.
Delving further into the mission of maintaining product freshness were the fridges, where details of refrigerated products were displayed on a screen next to the fridge.
This meant when you are interested in finding out more about a product in the fridge you don’t have to open it just to analyse the label, you can preserve the products in the fridge and only open it when you’re certain you want to buy a product. This wastes less energy.
Each of the systems in the supermarket is powered by a server and a central content management system where information about each product is stored.
But unfortunately this is where one of the main problems lies, as the product digitisation process can be quite difficult due to differing product standards and worldwide providers.
Cooperation is needed from the producers to input product information into the content management system, and although the technology is ready some of the producers are not.
Every interaction with the technology in store is tracked and monitored, creating big data for analytics.
The explanation of how this data would be used blew my mind a little, but it seemed as though the suggested use for collecting footfall and interaction data was to create pattern analysis to predict what customers will come in on what days and buy what things to make sure the right stock is in the shop.
Alongside the technology in the supermarket itself a mobile app exists to supplement the shopping experience and provide the customer with a more personalised edge.
Beacons around the store guide you around the super market through the app to products you want and suggested products based upon what you have already chosen or looked at.
The app can be used to save shopping lists, guide you on the best route around the shop based on what you want to buy and give you a more detailed breakdown of product information.
Social media was embedded at the supermarket’s core, with the ability to share on social media through the app and large screens across the warehouse space depicting interactions around the store and on social media sites.
The idea is to create a community feel by showing a shopper what is happening around them – what other people are buying.
Then things started to get super futuristic.
Around the supermarket there were displays with holographic images of what looked like microwave meals.
On closer inspection I noticed the advert was making suggestions for “personalised” food – apparently in 2050 you’ll be able to order ready-made 3D printed meals to match your tastes and speed up your cooking and shopping processes.
Unable to print my own ready-meal for another 35 years, I settled for buying some chocolate just so I could say I’d fully experienced the supermarket of the future.
Unfortunately language barriers got in the way of my paying experience, and unlike in the UK contactless payment is not always represented by the usual three curved line symbol.
But I eventually managed to walk away with a bar of chocolate and a vision of the future of shopping.