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Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – III

Use of analytics on video camera images to detect the time people stands in front of a shelf. Redder areas are those where people on average stay longer. Image credit: Glimpse Analytics

We already have plenty of data that are captured at any time in many places. As shown in the picture, department stores are using analytics on images captured by video cameras to assess the average time customers spend in a specific location, like looking at products on shelves. Based on these data the store managers try to move products in different positions evaluating how this would impact the attention span of customers and their willingness to buy a specific product. Notice that department stores have the goal of selling all their merchandise (they use data on saleability of items for re-stocking policy but they want to sell whatever they have on the shelves!) and therefore try to readjust the merchandise in ways leading to the complete sale of all stock (this is obviously the case of grocery and dairy products where you want to have everything sold out before it rots!).

Companies like Glimpse Analytics are in the business of providing intelligence based on video camera images and these companies are now expanding their analytics to serve the needs of social distancing. Video cameras feeds are analysed to check that people wear masks and keep their distance from one another. Robotised attendants can be directed, automatically, to warn people of their lack of compliance.

This reduces the cost to control people’s flow and potentially makes it more effective since a few (affordable wireless camera) can be deployed to provide full coverage of a shop floor plan. Similarly, cameras and analytics is being applied to monitor plants and workers movements.

The side effect of these measures is to create a platform for the digital transformation of retail, where more and more AI can be used to deliver services to customers. As I mentioned, this is not necessarily new since many department stores are already making use of data analytics. However, the pressure placed on storekeepers to help in containing exposures is multiplying video camera presence and transforming the use of data they harvest.

As always, there may be a downside to this: privacy activists are ready to point out the privacy intrusion of these systems and they fear that it will not be for a limited time only. Once the epidemic needs are over will shop keeper remove the cameras? Most unlikely. On the one hand these cameras have been used to deter shoplifters and will remain in place. On the other hand, the leverage of data through AI will prove quite useful to those shopkeepers that were not using them for analytics and therefore will remain in place.

There is something more. Once you have all those cameras deployed and they will no longer look at people’s face to make sure they wear protective masks, since the need will be over, the software will be able to look directly at customers  faces and detect their mood from their expression. The use of AI will make profiling much more effective and I doubt shopkeepers will not want to take advantage of it.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.