The importance of being NCR

I approached the console. I hunched over the interface. I took a nice, long whiff.

It was about two years ago, and we were standing in the middle of the trade show floor at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where a group of manufacturers were showing ovens and meat-cutting machines as

part of a conference called Grocery Showcase Canada. I was a guest of NCR, which was demonstrating Web-based kiosks that could allow consumers to smell products before they buy them. A set of crystals inside the hardware stored the various scents — which in this case included a series of ice-cream flavours, using a technology provided by a German company called Aerome. Air sent through the crystals blasted a spray via a circular disk at the top of the kiosk, which allowed you to breathe in the fragrances.

It was just the kind of wackiness I had come to expect from NCR, a firm which balances the seriousness of its data warehousing side, Teradata, with technologies that can only be described as novelty acts. From automated teller machine anomalies to its kiosk kookiness, its greatest marketing strength is the ability of its executive team to conduct these sorts of briefings with a straight face. In this case, NCR executives called the kiosk “”the smell sell,”” and expected to see them in grocery stores in Canada and the United States. Sadly, there were no customers on hand. Having a pretty good nose for news, I concluded that while the product was indeed a “”best-smeller,”” it likely wouldn’t make a bestseller. But they’ve got the right idea, and the firm’s R&D radicals may one day offer the most compelling means to improve ease of use in IT networks everywhere.

Last week, for example, NCR said it was working with researchers at the University of Southern California’s Integrated Media Systems Center on software that could help machines interpret human emotions. Think of it as biometrics with heart: cameras at ATMs would capture an image of your face, which would be compared with thousands of others in various states of emotion in a Teradata catologue. Treating faces as a sort of map, the machine would try to figure out how you’re feeling and respond accordingly.

Frowning at the many ads that are popping up on ATM screens, for instance, could lead the machine to stop showing them. Squint at the display and the font size might increase. Scowl at the service fees as your transaction is completed and . . . probably nothing will happen.

There has to be a fairly wide margin of error here — sometimes when I’m getting money out of the ATM I’m thinking about work or my personal life, not the transaction — but NCR’s efforts to personalize the computing experience are intriguing. Before the scented kiosk, it had discussed its plans for a self-checkout tool that apparently is making a few inroads in the U.S. This is an attempt to solve another age-old irritation of standing in line at the supermarket.

In the desktop space, hardware and software companies often assume that the secret to usability is simply a matter of changing the form factor, usually making it smaller or mobile. NCR’s approach may be more invasive, but not many firms would attempt to look users in the eye and base customer support on a facial expression.

Being a successful inventor means being able to spot trouble. NCR approaches those trouble areas in genuinely innovative and risky ways that could serve as a lesson to others in the industry. We may chuckle at the results, but it deserves credit for partnering with academia and trying to work with customers so they can use technology the way they want to use it. This is a collaborative, consultative methodology. Smells like team spirit.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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