Priya Narasimhan has a vision: a robot helping shoppers find everything on their shopping list in grocery and other stores.
Walking through the Carnegie Mellon University campus bookstore on a recent day, she was accompanied by just that -- a 3 1/2-foot robot resembling R2D2.
Narasimhan, a CMU professor and businesswoman, invented AndyVision, a robot, digital screen and information software that together enable communications among customers, the retailer and the robot.
Narasimhan said the idea for AndyVision, funded by CMU's Intel Science and Technology Center, came out of her own frustrations with shopping in grocery stores.
"You go into stores and you get frustrated because you can't find what you need or you leave feeling shortchanged because you bought all the wrong things," she said.
The current prototype of the robot, known affectionately as ScotBot, can navigate autonomously on wheels around the store, taking photos with its high-resolution camera. It recognizes items based on their shape, color and location, and its visual-recognition technology notices when something is missing, misplaced or low in stock. Eventually, its makers plan to link the robot with storeowners' mobile devices or laptops, providing them with real-time inventory updates.
Customers also can browse a large touch screen at the front of the CMU store. They can see a 3-D image of merchandise that is on sale and scan a QR code from the screen onto their mobile phones to get the discount. Narasimhan also wants to use a three-dimensional store image to help shoppers map the location of every ingredient they need to bake a cake, or see where the guacamole is when they buy tortilla chips.
Like many roboticists, Narasimhan must balance a dream of robotics with smart business. Though she said she wants retailers' needs to determine which technologies she incorporates into AndyVision, it could turn out to be yet another endeavor whose software sells better than the robot itself. Before it can reach the marketplace, major costs, time and research barriers remain.
This fall, Narasimhan will pilot ScotBot by letting it work alone in the CMU campus bookstore. If that's successful, she hopes to run pilot programs at retailers such as Costco and grocery stores over the next year, and to sell the system to retailers after that.
Consultants from Boston Retail Partners said if a technology can help save on labor costs, as Narasimhan hopes her robot will, it can make a difference for retailers. Labor is the second-highest controllable cost for grocers, after refrigeration, they said. Much of that labor is devoted to counting goods several times a day. But Perry Kramer, vice president of the consulting firm, said grocers have some of the lowest profit margins in retail, making them cautious about adopting new technologies.
Kramer and Brian Brunk, a partner at the consulting group, both said AndyVision's software could help improve customer service by linking information about the location of goods with customers' cell phones. But buying the AndyVision software without the robot might be more attractive to some retailers, who prefer to use known, cheaper technologies, they said.
Narasimhan said the robot's roaming capabilities provide retailers with the added advantage of constant, real-time information about inventory.
"We are enamored and attached to the concept of the robot," she said. "But from a very practical standpoint, we realize it may not be feasible everywhere."
Martin Hitch, CEO of Bossa Nova Robotics, said if robots succeed in retail, they'll find a path into homes and into the mainstream as their cost slides.
"I don't think there's a lack of personal robots because there's a lack of ideas," he said. "I think there's a lack of personal robots because the cost is prohibitive."
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