Ellie -- The Shopping Hologram Concierge At The Mall Of AmericaMALL OF AMERICA
The Mall of America has been a hotbed of retail experimentation over the past few months. In October, the Mall of America debuted GH Lab, the collaboration between Amazon and Good Housekeeping that takes retail showrooming to new heights (see below).
In November, it provided a home to Fourpost, the new store concept that takes on the much-needed task of reimagining the department store (see below).
Now, to start December, the Mall of America has surprised and delighted retail enthusiasts once again with its latest initiative -- Ellie.
Ellie is the Mall of America's Shopping Hologram Concierge. It is an industry-first experience that allows shoppers to interact with AI in a helpful and fun way. Ellie helps mall shoppers find a gift for their special loved ones or, my favorite touch, it also inspires the imagination of young children.
“At our core, Mall of America is an experiential retail destination. VNTANA’s hologram technology is a great way to capitalize on our multi-channel chatbot we launched last year and provides yet another interaction for guests to experience that not only offers a fun interaction but also assistance to those searching for gift ideas this holiday season," relayed Sarah Townes, the VP of Marketing at Mall of America.
Ellie is the brainchild of startup VNTANA. VNTANA is a company that has been on my radar screen within this space for some time. VNTANA's patented mixed-reality technology works with any existing chatbot (e.g. Amazon Alexa, Satisfi Labs, etc.) to create intelligent 3-D avatars that can assist consumers in a number of ways, from answering questions, scheduling appointments, to even giving directions.
I had the chance to sit down with the CEO of VNTANA, Ashley Crowder, for a one-on-one interview and a personal demonstration of the technology. Here is a link to the podcast interview in full.
What struck me both in the interview and in the demonstration was just how far the technology had come. First, take a look at this quick video I shot in September 2017 on the floor of the Shop.org trade show:
Now, take a look at the very same technology at the Mall of America. It is quite different.
This technology, as it sits right now, is important because it highlights four points:
1. Experimentation Is Easy And Should Be Applauded
The Mall of America deserves a ton of credit here. Experiments like Ellie advance progress towards new, uncharted destinations. Businesses that have the guts to trial them, to take the good feedback with the bad, are years ahead of the competition in terms of understanding what the future could look like.
The Mall of America had the gusto to transform what was a Tron-like concept a year ago into a creative elfish-display that is fun and helpful. Experiments like these will only serve them well going forward.
2. AI Will Become Personal and Personalized
While "personalization" is one of the most common buzzwords in the business right now, advancing capabilities within the space are a fact of life. It is easy to talk about Alexa, IBM Watson, and others, but what is even more interesting is to think about how all this artificial intelligence will come to life visually over time.
Will it just remain a black cylinder atop a countertop, a la Alexa, or become something similar out of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or, will it take on a known and even animate persona, both in people's homes and out in the physical world?
What VNTANA elucidates is that the software for how personalization will come to life visually is as important to think about as the underlying AI that powers the answers that people seek.
3. Technology, When Done Well, Removes Friction
In its current form, Ellie helps shoppers find gifts for the holiday season, while shopping at the Mall of America. Now, go a step further and imagine the "what if's." Imagine "what if" Ellie could become something even more down the road?
It is always misguided to evaluate technology on what it is today. Instead, it is important to look at what the technology has the potential to do. One of the best litmus tests of all is to ask, "How can a shopping technology today make the lives of parents even easier?"
Take Ellie in the video above and now imagine a virtual Santa, a Santa Claus with whom children can interact, and as children tell Santa what they want for Christmas, AI works in the background to interpret the children's wishes, and those wishes are then immediately messaged to parents' phones. Malls then ask, concierge style, which of these wishes parents would like to fulfill, and the malls then have gift-wrapped packages waiting for parents in the trunks of their cars, as they take their children home from seeing Santa and after stopping in for the always required post-Santa caffeine hit.
Does this example make the world a better, more convenient place? It sure as heck does.
Ellie has such potential.
4. Technology Can Be As Much Or Even More About Entertainment Than Consumption
As much as the Santa example is cool, it also should not distract from the notion that technology does not always have to be about getting consumers to buy things. It can also be a source of entertainment and inspiration.
My favorite feature of Ellie was watching children take Mall of America Elfies, i.e. selfies with the VNTANA installation. Seeing the joy on their faces, I just had to try it. Here's a video of my Elfie:
In a world where the only difference between a physical commercial experience and a digital one is the sheer delight and memory of being somewhere, technology can be as much the reason for going somewhere as it can be the reason for staying home and shopping from one's couch.
Mixed reality, when done well, can be the reason for people to go somewhere and just may solve real life problems along the way too. It is the brave new world that is coming. It is the new reality that awaits, and in a way, there is nothing "mixed" about it.
Kudos to the Mall of America for continuing to jump into this fast approaching future feet first.