How the West Edmonton Mall uses Microsoft Kinect and your smartphone for a next-gen way finding system

In most shopping malls, walking up to the store directory map remains a pretty analog experience. Even if the map is mounted on a shiny glass display, and even if it’s colour-coded into easy-to-find blocks with numbers, a little dot saying “You are here” is about as personalized and contextual as it gets.

For a retail facility the size of the West Edmonton Mall (WEM), clearly that’s not enough, and its CIO knows it.

A few months ago, visitors to Canada’s largest shopping complex were introduced to a directory kiosk custom-built by Joseph Schuldhaus’s team that is not only intended to redefine the retail experience there, but at the Mall of the America in the U.S., which is also owned by the Triple Five Group of Companies. The team has since applied for preliminary patent protection and could wind up offering its design as a standard means for engaging with consumers.

At a time when Canada is losing a slew of retail giants such as Target, Jacob and Mexx, the WEM’s kiosk is an IT project that shows how a combination of analytics, mobile apps and location-based services may be necessary to get people into a store and keep them there.

“A lot of first-time shoppers come in and they’re intimidated by the size of this mall,” Schuldhaus said, noting Triple Five doesn’t just rent out stores but actually owns and operates a waterpark, as well as food and beverage services, which means it is dealing directly with customers. “We wanted to make sure we had a platform that gave us some roadmap capabilities for making that experience (of navigating the mall) quite different as we go, and not requiring us to always go to third parties to have features added in.”

The project is already paying off in several ways, not least of which is Schuldhaus and Triple Five winning a 2015 CIO Impact Award from Frost & Sullivan. Shortly before heading to San Francisco to pick up his trophy, Schuldhaus offered CanadianCIO a behind-the-scenes look at how the directory kiosk works, the path to get it launched and a sense of how it could evolve over time.

What you’ll find while wayfinding

No more waiting behind someone else or awkwardly trying to squeeze in next to them to look for a store. The kiosk is wide enough to accommodate two guests, who can each conduct their own searches using the touch-screen display. Once they’ve identified the store they want, an app will provide them turn-by-turn navigation on their smartphone. If the store in question is offering a special sale or coupon, these can be distributed to mobile devices, too. The kiosks also support near-field communication (NFC) and QR codes, which mean other kinds of digital interactions can be integrated into the experience. Perhaps most surprisingly, the WEM is using Microsoft Kinect, the motion-sensing technology traditionally found in its video games, to know when someone is moving in front of the kiosk and to detect any delays in performance.

The metrics behind the map

Although there are lots of ways to potentially measure the success of something like the directory kiosk, Schuldhaus said Triple Five was going for three specific differentiators.

“We wanted to have a kiosk that wasn’t necessarily a shopping tool but something where you could use it as a way to find a store and get moving,” he said. In that sense, mission accomplished: In the first four months, there have been more than 50,000 searches on a single kiosk (there are plans to install 12 across the WEM).

On the other hand, the kiosk offers more than just directions. Based on what you’re looking for, the ads served on the screen will change accordingly. That means marketing campaigns can be much more relevant.

“If I’m a woman and searching for a handbag or in ladieswear categories, maybe a handbag ad or something in that category for those kinds of items would come up and be targeted to that specific search,” he said. “The idea was, why not offer those marketing opportunities in a curated way, so they’re not just getting some ad randomly?”

The second differentiator was to ensure smartphones or other mobile devices carried by visitors would serve as a “second screen” for the kiosk. This spring, Schuldhaus said the WEM will be launching a new app that works with Apple’s iBeacon technology. That way, as someone is doing a search, information about a route or coupon offer is being shared instantly between an iBeacon inside the kiosk and the app.

“It’s just a more frictionless way of engaging the consumer, so they don’t have to repeat those steps on their mobile device,” he said. “There’s some intelligence between the two to give them that experience.”

The third differentiator is a tenant-facing app that retailers can include on mobile devices used by staff. In essence, if someone searches for a store via the kiosk or gets a coupon offer as part of that experience, the retailer will get a sort of head’s up to prepare as a potential customer walks in.

“They can start that dialogue in a more defined way without having to ask, ‘How did you see the ad?’” he said. “Then say, ‘Let me show you what you’re looking for. It’s in this aisle.’” The end result, he said, could be a much higher level of customer service.

Incidentally, Triple Five has installed 510 access points in the WEM, meaning it has more control over the Wi-Fi it provides throughout the premises as it expands mobile capabilities, Schuldhaus said.

Ergonomics is everything

Once the requirements had been defined after months of field work observing products and directories at other shopping centres, the WEM’s IT organization built a prototype without all the housing but a functional user interface.

“We didn’t design the kiosk and then figure out how to make the software work inside it,” Schouldhaus said.  “The hardware was really secondary to the UI.”

That said, the team realized early on they would need a kiosk that was ergonomically suited to people of all sizes. For example, the slope of the kiosk display is set at 30 degrees, which Schuldhaus said is ideal for arm reaches of various heights.

“When you put a UI on a straight piece of glass, you tend to put a map at the top and a touchpoint below,” he said. “You’re assuming is the average person’s height is suitable, but if the UI is vertical, you’re going to start getting problems where the glass touch surface and the angle are no longer aligned.”

Instead, the WEM’s kiosk is more of a table-type surface suitable for wheelchair users that looks sort of like the console of a space ship. The team brought in employees of many different sizes to do blind tests to search for stores within the mall in order to confirm the ergonomics were correct.

The addition of Microsoft Kinect, meanwhile, offers rich opportunities for further data. “It might indicate how that kiosk is being used,” he said. “Those things are all important.”

For example, the WEM doesn’t always ads on the kiosk when it is not being used for search, but when people are just walking by. When it detects someone has come walking up, it will turn off the ad and bring up the search controls so that people don’t have to figure out how to use it. When someone walks away, the ads can resume. This makes managing content across the device much more efficient. Height and facial recognition are future possibilities, as it might present a way to offer ads for male-oriented products to men and so on.

Tech that set the timelines

The WEM first started thinking about a next-generation directory kiosk back in 2010, but it was the introduction of 4K displays — which offer resolution on the order of 4,000 pixels — that galvanized the project.

“When you’ve got 800 shops and services and you want to delineate those store locations, it’s amazing how poorly standard high-definition works when you’re standing close to the screen,” he said. “4K gave us a much richer field of vision and a much more refined user experience at close range.”

NFC was another catalyst, given how widely it was becoming used on Android devices. Rather than just put an NFC chip in the kiosk, the WEM connects a NFC device via USB, which allows the firm to change the messaging that’s coming out of it. “We have complete control of the software,” Schuldhaus said, which means the kiosk can point to a number of different URLs, a phone number or dialling sequence, among other possibilities. “That Web URL might be dynamic at the back end, but it didn’t allow that user experience to be as flexible at the onset,” he said.

From a hardware perspective, the WEM achieved its own innovation by creating a dual-mode UI.

“We came up with that idea because this is a tremendous cost in putting that together, and if we can double the number of users, we can get twice the performance than when we look at a single-user experience,” he said. In other words, if a single kiosk was an $80,000 investment, having two users halves that cost to $40,000 per “engagement,” or area where the kiosk is placed.

Finally, the 65-inch screen size is no accident, nor are the specifics of how the directory kiosks are set up. The WEM is a wide mall where stores are arranged on the east and west sides. That’s why the kiosks face north and south. That way, if a shopper is on the south end of the kiosk, it will show the west side of the mall and the left and the east side on the right.

“We’ve flipped the map so that the orientation is appropriate to the direction you’re facing the kiosk,” he said. “You don’t have to orient yourself or your mind and think, ‘Oh, I have to go in the direction the map is showing me.’”

Evolve via open data

As the kiosks are rolled out across the mall, the WEM is obviously going to be gathering even more data than it provides consumers. Given that potential, Schuldhaus said the company is partnering with the University of Alberta’s School of Business and offering students a look at the data sets so they can develop some innovative ways to make use of them. This is not unlike open data projects where the many levels of the Canadian government are providing developers access to the information it collects.

“We have our own ideas, but we really thought this would be a great opportunity for these students,” Schuldhaus said. “Plus, they tend to be the people who use these smart devices more than any of us. Let them come back and say, ‘As a consumer, this is what I’d like to see.’”

In other words, even though it’s winning awards today, the WEM’s directory kiosk may soon have a lot more in store.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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