Over there in Seattle, they’re testing something right out of The Jetsons, or perhaps right out of 1984 — or both. It’s the Amazon Go grocery store, and for those who don’t like waiting in line, or can’t figure out those newfangled self-checkout machines, it might be a dream come true.
The technology involves a network of cameras, microphones and Amazon’s fleet of powerful servers which run its cloud services and digital factotum Alexa. Essentially, it allows a shopper to walk into the store, grab stuff, and walk out — with all purchases automatically charged to an account.
Amazon filed a patent in 2014 which appears to be related. It uses a whole lot of cameras and mics and operates in a similar manner to the systems which control autonomous vehicles: customers entering the store flash their phone, on which the Amazon Go application is installed, in front of a scanner, which reads a QR code to identify them. The system then tracks them as they move around the store, with cameras capturing images of where they stopped, what they picked up, and whether they kept it or put it back. Quoth the patent: “When the user’s hand is removed from the inventory location, one or more images may be captured of the user’s hand as it exits the inventory location. Those images may be compared to determine whether a user has picked an item from the inventory location or placed an item in the inventory location.”
The cameras could even recognize the unique skin tone of the person’s hand, which would be used to let the system determine that it was dealing with the right person: “Image analysis may be performed on the first image to determine a skin tone color of the user’s hand and pixels including that color, or a range of colors similar to the identified skin tone color, may be identified to represent the user’s hand.”
Elsewhere, microphones would be employed to figure out where customers are by the noises they make (“Holy s**t, look at the PRICE of this prime rib!”) — even using triangulation between several mics for precise location. Add infrared, load and pressure sensors on the shelves which can tell when items have been picked up or put back, and you have one powerful, processor-intensive and most likely expensive system — and that last part may be the key to whether this ever goes beyone the current testing phase. Says analyst Brendan Witcher at Forrester, “The challenge is whether you can make it cost-effective. Has Amazon come up with the secret sauce?”
A lot of industry insiders were betting that this sort of thing would be made possible by RFID tags, which send out a constant beacon allowing whatever they’re attached to to be tracked in real time. So what’s the holdup in that department, then? “They’ve come down in price, they’re now only about five cents each. But it’s still pretty labor intensive to RFID tag everything,” says Witcher.
The Amazon Go system could also be of great benefit to retailers who like to keep track of what their customers are buying, and tailor ads, specials and other things appropriately (currently, loyalty cards are a big part of this). Says David Hewitt at consulting outfit SapientRazorfish, “Think about turning on a digital display that markets to the person who’s in the aisle right then. I know it’s a little Big Brother, but all this data is welcome if it makes the shopping process better.”
Eventually, Amazon might license its technology to other grocery retailers, which would be a double win: not only would it make money on the hardware and tech, but also on the use of its AWS cloud services.
Currently, Amazon Go is available in test mode to the company’s Seattle employees.