Sales robots are coming to a retailer near you

Just when you thought it was okay to stop and catch your breath from the whirlwind of exciting new technology, think again. The head-spinning pace has just ramped up a notch! This time it’s sales robots. Imagine a robot wheeling up to you at the local hardware supply store and asking in a Siri-like voice, “Can I help you today?” Well, in case you think I’m joking, go and take a visit to the Orchard Supply Hardware Store in San Jose, CA, at the center of Silicon Valley. Now until the end of the holiday, upon visiting the store you’ll be greeted by a device called OSHBot. This is a human-sized, multi-lingual robot capable of scanning your desired part  with a 3D sensing camera and leading you to where it’s located on the shelf.

 

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Anyone who has visited a major retail supplier like Home Depot knows the challenges of finding what you need. I’ve often wondered why someone doesn’t invent an app to scan a product with your iPhone and lead you to its location. But OSHBot goes a step further. It’s the brainchild of Lowe’s Innovation Labs (as in the Lowe’s Home Improvement retail chain) and Fellow Robots, a technology company spin off from SU Labs at Singularity University, and represents the latest advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, sensors, wireless networking, voice recognition, and design prototyping.

By showcasing OSHBot Lowe’s is really about leveraging the latest technologies to transform the whole shopping experience. And why not? We have pretty much been shopping the same way for decades; walk in, get a cart, search the aisles for your items, take them to the checkout, pay and leave the store. It’s an experience ripe for disruption. Speaking of OSHBot, “This is something that could change retail in a meaningful way,” said Kyle Nel, the executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. You don’t have to wander around just to find out we don’t have it, or even worse, buy it and bring it home and realize that’s not the thing,” Nel said. If an object is in the store, OSHBot will know exactly where it is.

 

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Now obviously we won’t see these devices appearing overnight in stores, but the progression in technology that has made this all possible is rather staggering. The last 7 years has witnessed momentous breakthroughs in mobile, cloud, and social collaborative technologies. This has all fundamentally changed how we live, the way we do business, and how we interact with others.

The consumerization of IT has been a major byproduct of all this, as businesses have been faced with epic changes in how goods, services, and technologies are consumed. Robotics are a major byproduct of this transformation. We’ve seen the development of the mobile telepresence market in recent years, with solutions available for helping workers remote into the home office from distant locations. Anyone with $2500 can now turn themselves into a robot and remotely move around their home office thousands of miles away and interact with colleagues and coworkers. The point here is this; thanks to the latest advances in mobile, cloud, and social collaboration, robotics have reached an inflection point where the technology has caught up with the vision.  They’ve entered our offices, are about to join the world of retail, and we expect they will pay a visit to our homes soon enough.

Sales robots are the next logical step in one of the most disruptive changes in the history of retail. Your visit to your local hardware store doesn’t have to be a chore in patience as you look for those 5/16 inch screws. With OSHBot you can be in and out within a fraction of the time. We can only imagine Amazon eagerly looking on, ready to launch something of its own soon enough.

 

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We’re at the dawn of the smart machine era. As Gartner points out, “Prototype autonomous vehicles, advanced robots, virtual personal assistants and smart advisors already exist and will evolve rapidly, ushering in a new age of machine helpers. The smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.” In the not-too-distant-future, when you enter a store you’ll be greeted by a robot sales assistant that will ask if you need help finding something. The same goes for restaurants. How about a robot greeter, seater, and waiter?

OSHBot certainly raises many complex issues about the future of work. Obviously devices like this will  require lots of initial investment, but as with any new and exciting technology prices will eventually drop as consumers get more familiar and demand increases. One study suggests that nearly half of U.S. jobs may be automated in the next 20 years. So when robots come to your business, how will you respond? Now is the time to start thinking seriously about the growing automation of work. If you’re a CEO or CIO, what are you doing to prepare your organization for the digitization of work? Are your employees preparing themselves with higher order skills needed to compete in the digital workforce of 2020 and beyond? Managers are not invincible; do you also have the skills to stay relevant? Don’t let these questions wait, start to seriously face and answer them today in order to keep your business on the competitive edge in 2015!

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