Cisco Brings Location-Based Big Data To Shopping

Cisco touts its analytics technology, teamed with users'
But there's a challenge, according to Shenoy; many business's apps have been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of people but are used relatively infrequently, with only 1% or 2% of the installed base qualifying as active users. The burden thus falls to developers, who will have access to a Cisco SDK, to use location-based data for more engrossing in-venue experiences. Shenoy suggested this could include anything from turn-by-turn directions to help people lost within particularly large spaces, such as casinos or airports, to augmented reality overlays that provide additional information and rich media content to supplement the in-person experience.

As an example, Shenoy said the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta is rolling out a new app in conjunction with Cisco's announcement. Most museum attendees who want in-depth information have to rely on guided tours, or on pre-recorded presentations that they listen to on rented headsets. These approaches limit how the museum experience can unfold, but with the app, a visitor can roam as he or she pleases; as the visitor moves, the app can instantly discern where that visitor has gone and conjure related content.

The Fernbank app additionally offers customized capabilities based on individual preferences, allowing visitors to modify the experience on repeat visits. Additionally, it allows Fernbank to promote a given service, such as food or a gift store, as a user wanders into its proximity. As a result, said Shenoy, the Fernbank case illustrates how the free Wi-Fi networks that most venues already offer can be turned into marketing engines that promote services while also -- if the app developers do a good job -- enhancing the user experience.

If a user hasn't elected to activate services, the network can still collect anonymous data. Moreover, if the user has a smartphone equipped with Qualcomm's chip, an unobtrusive icon will appear on his or her device's screen. The icon is a link to not only useful information, such as venue maps or event schedules, but also to the apps that allow individual user profiles to be correlated to real-time location data. In this way, Cisco hopes to inspire more frequent use of these oft-neglected apps by letting developers turn them into interactive retail experiences that combine the best of the online world with the visceral immediacy of a physical location.

Recent acquisitions foretold that Cisco was planning something like this, particularly the September purchase of ThinkSmart. Shenoy confirmed that ThinkSmart tech has been integrated into Cisco's Mobility Services Engine (MSE), which is itself part of the company's recently unveiled Unified Access platform. MSE, he said, is doing all the behind-the-scenes work that makes the real-time analysis possible.

Cisco's announcement arrives with Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, imminent. Although businesses won't have time to act on new location-based tools this year, such resources could play a role in the future. Currently, stores such as Best Buy have instituted price-matching policies to keep customers from fleeing to Amazon and other online vendors. Although this approach might work, it has been criticized as rife with opportunities to backfire, and for misunderstanding that sales are not always driven by pricing alone.

Some future combination of a specific user's shopping history and his or her current location could help retailers alleviate these concerns. Discounted prices could be intelligently offered on a user-specific basis, rather than a global one, for example. Better customer service could also result, either through improved understanding of customer behavior, or by simply merging the online world's information onslaught and rich media opportunities with the physical world's tactile experiences.

If any of this sounds more disquieting than intriguing, Cisco is sympathetic. The tech, after all, veers close to the mall scene in Minority Report, in which advertisements call out to shoppers by name, citing previous purchases and touting new sales. Shenoy said Cisco understands the privacy implications of location-based big data, and is also mindful that the enterprise could collapse if some businesses try to spam users with a barrage of unwanted offers. As a result, he said, all personalized services are opt-in, leaving ultimate control with the user. He said that the SDK and APIs, meanwhile, would guide developers toward successful integrations of the analytics engine -- though the ultimate execution still comes down to businesses and their respective app-builders.

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