International Buying Machines? Nah, But IBM Is Developing An Augmented Reality Shopping App

For 101 years, IBM has been known primarily as a giant corporate entity that makes mainframe computers and all sorts of enterprise-centric tech. Slowly and slightly, that identity is shifting. This will only speed up the rate of change: IBM is working on a product that directly touches consumer's lives, an augmented reality shopping app.

According to Ad Age, IBM is in advanced testing of its app with "yet-unnamed large retailers in the U.S." It sounds pretty amazing: Once you've added in lists of ingredients you're looking for, and specified conditions like biodegradable packaging or which of the ingredients you need right now for a meal, you then hit the stores. As you browse, the app does the AR trick of displaying the view through your phone's camera and simultaneously recognizes the objects you're looking at on the shelves using image recognition code. It'll then pop up additional information about the product as a graphical overlay, letting you know if you've indeed found the items you need for a meal.

IBM's thought about usability too—there's a one-time setup that requires consumers to only enter their loyalty card number or phone number to identify themselves to the app, which makes it more accessible to clients who've not opted in to a loyalty scheme yet. A set of preferences will let them choose additional important information like dietary restrictions, environmental choices or religious preferences, and this info will then inform the pop-over information displayed as they use the app in-store. IBM's VP of corporate marketing John Kennedy has even hinted that in the future the app will make real-time special offers available as users browse the shelves, based on their interests.

This is all very un-corporate, and very future-friendly. Indeed it's got distinct echoes of the Snapette app we covered recently that's trying to change how you shop for items like clothes with a slightly different location-based AR model, and it taps into the barely explored future of AR.

There's even a brand-new peer for IBM's app in the form of Flow, newly available on Android and designed to be effortless since you "point your iPhone [sic] camera to the items around you and watch as product information starts coming back instantly" and "tap the product information on the screen to read reviews, get product details, find related items—even watch movie trailers." Designed for CD, DVD, book and game shopping among others, it's even got a QR code reader, and it allows in-app purchases routed through Amazon's servers (IBM shunned QR tech because they see it as a barrier to adoption, and the object-recognition system is much more natural).

The forward-looking tech meshes well with existing IBM products. Next time you're shopping, take note of the manufacturer of the cash register—and you may just see that familiar IBM logo more times than you'd expect. In IBM's new app the product information shown on-screen is actually routed via IBM's Smarter Commerce Software. In other words, IBM is aware that upstart mobile payment/shopping apps that leverage mobile tech in ways that are disruptive to long-established shopping infrastructure companies are threatening its business. By releasing an app that's future-gazing, it can reassure retailers their investment is still sound with IBM tech and can promise (we're guessing) additional analytics to the retailer based on the shopper's AR habits.

So are we primed to being thinking about IBM as "International Buying Machines"? Not so fast. This feels more like a slightly quixotic experiment. But it does underscore the fact that augmented reality apps and location-based apps are quickly emerging as the next-gen shopping experience. And it does provide a use-case for tech like Google's Project Glass, which in a situation like the one IBM is trying out really could make shopping a much more informed experience.

[Image: Flickr user Jes Mugley]

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