SixthSense, a truly interactive shopping experience

Today most retail store aisles, with their quiet passive rows of products neatly lined up to the horizon, are like dusty rows of library bookshelves. There is little life, less information, and no interactivity with the products on the shelf. They just sit there, some more politely than others, waiting to be taken home.

With devices like SixthSense, designed by Pranav Mistry from the Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab, this is about to change. He calls SixthSense “a wearable gestural interface that augments the physical world around us with digital information and lets us use natural hand gestures to interact with that information.” I call it groundbreaking and could see cell phones having this functionality in a few years..

Watch this TED video!

If you feel, as I do, that the next important change in the retail environment will make it interactive, and that product packages will become an integral part of the brand experience, not just designed for the shelf but for the whole lifecycle of the product, then you will be amazed. In it Pattie Maes demonstrates the device for the first time. Its just 8 minutes or so, and make sure you stay for the last few minutes where specific retail applications are demonstrated.

I have heard a lot of hyperbole about the interactive retail environment, and discussions of how holographic packaging, or talking retail displays, or battery operated shelf inserts were going to change the world of retailing. But all of these are one-dimensional push technology spewing out information that the manufacturer or retailer think you want to hear. And certainly not tailored to your specific interests or needs.

Devices like SixthSense will be a much richer interface for the consumer at the store. You will select a package from the shelf and have the device pull all the relevant information you feel is important for an informed purchase decision from its internet browser, live, right there in the aisle.

Do you have a nut allergy, is the product organic, less expensive than a competing brand, made in the USA, any criteria you choose can be searched right then and there. SixthSense can even be preprogrammed to help you select only products that meet your criteria.

This will change the conversation completely. Every brand medium, from traditional advertising, to internet blogs, to user youtube videos will be available to you at the retail shelf.

So for package designers the task will remain how do we present brand equity when the package becomes a more integral part of the brand experience. And this task will not get easier, just because we won’t need as much stuff on the box.

The fundamental question will become, how do we communicate the essence of the brand, and perhaps nothing more, when other forms of media can communicate everything else?

In an age when consumer access to product information at the store is instantaneous, the question will not be, what do we need the box to say on shelf, and how loudly do we need to say it, but what role do we want the box to play in the entire lifecycle of the brand.

That sounds like fun!

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About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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7 Responses to SixthSense, a truly interactive shopping experience

  1. Dan Lewis says:

    Cool, will it happen in our life time… maybe at the end of my life time. The Media Lab is filled with great ideas, fantastic tech and genius. It is however a very long process to get things out of the Media Lab and on to the shelves. The device that Patttie Maes was wearing may very well have been cobbled up out $300 worth of existing components but that’s the easy part. It is the infrastructure and extraordinary data base of info that make it useful that is the long and difficult part. It has to be pervasive enough that it’s usefulness will drive the consumer over the threshold to purchase and use. I saw the beginning of gestural interface in a room at MIT in 1983/4 were items on a wall size digital image were being moved on screen by the gestures of a human standing in the middle of the room. In 1995 I worked with Nicholas Negroponti (then head of the Media Lab) Jerome Weisner and Jerry Rubin on the first ebook start up — about 10 years before the technology caught up with the idea — very Kindle like except the books were on PC-cards because that was the height of tech and portability at the time. eInk, the display technology for all ebooks was about 10 years in development also a Media Lab technology originally developed as push signage system.

    So, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that I will live to see it.

  2. Dan, Thanks for the comment. I would say that cases of “augmented reality” apps for the iphone, like yelp’s use of the monocle to find a restaurant, or Scanlife’s ability to interact with a consumer’s cell phone in the store are already getting very close to Sixthsense capabilities. Here are 2 links,

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