Amazon Go, the cashier-less convenience store that uses sensors and AI to automatically track and ring up purchases, set off a surge of interest when it was teased in 2016 and finally opened in Seattle this past January. But the idea of automated checkout goes back well before Amazon Go’s launch. As the accuracy of computer vision has taken off in the past few years, turning checkout over to cameras and AI has become the focus of several startups.
“As soon as I stepped in the store, I saw the lines, and I knew there was no way I was going to go in for one item,” says entrepreneur Krishna Motukuri, recalling an aborted 2014 trip to Trader Joe’s to pick up milk. “That got me thinking, there’s gotta be a better way.” Motukuri actually worked at Amazon from 1999 to 2006, in supply chain systems and product search. (He declines to say whether anything like the Amazon Go model was discussed when he worked there.)
In 2014, Motukuri teamed up with his college buddy Motilal Agrawal, who has a PhD in computer vision, to develop a product-tracking technology company. Taking several twists and turns, their efforts led to the automated store venture they just recently christened as Zippin.
Motukuri and I are sitting at a plain table in the back of a gutted retail space at Howard and Fremont streets in the East Cut neighborhood of San Francisco, two blocks from the giant new Salesforce Tower. At another table, closer to the front, Agrawal and his team of coders are hunched over their work. And at the very front, hidden from the street behind blanked-out windows and sheets of Styrofoam, is a very mini mart: a few shelves holding snacks and two coolers loaded with drinks, salads, and other grab-and-go fare.
With it, San Francisco gets its first automated checkout market, which will expand up to nearly 500 square feet to become a full-sized cashier-free convenience store in the coming months, says Motukuri. Not only a first for San Francisco, Zippin–as far as we can tell–is the first Amazon Go rival to open to the public anywhere.
It’s far from the only competitor, though. Bay Area neighbors such as AiFi, Aipoly, and Standard Cognition and Israel’s Trigo Vision are all developing similar systems. They each use arrays of inexpensive cameras positioned overhead to track people and the products they pick up. The camera feeds are analyzed by algorithms trained through machine learning to recognize the appearance of each product the store carries.
How it works
Some companies, like Trigo Vision, say they can do the job just with cameras. But Zippin uses weight sensors on the shelves as a backup. Several of the same product, like five bags of potato chips, sit on each sensor, which can register when one of the items has been picked up. “At any given point, when you pick an item off [the shelf] we know that took place from the cameras overhead as well as the [shelf] sensors,” says Motukuri.
(Other automated checkout startups, such as Imagr, mount cameras on smart shopping carts, but they don’t allow people to literally put things in a bag or pocket and just walk out.)
How does the system know whom to charge for what? Shoppers check in through Zippin’s app displaying a QR code on the phone screen for a scanner at the entrance. From there, the overhead cameras follow the shopper, as they pick up items (as well as when they put items back). Seeing that person finally walk out the door, Zippin’s system tallies what they picked up and charges their online account.
The company says it can keep track of a shopper using generic details like body shape and clothing. It does not use facial recognition; in fact faces weren’t even visible in the ceiling-mounted video feeds Zippin showed me. The best I could see were the tops of heads.
Motukuri reckons that a typical convenience store or bodega, covering about 1,000 square feet, would need only about 15 cameras–a startling claim. The inaugural Amazon Go store, measuring about 1,800 square feet, requires hundreds of camera arrays, according to the New York Times. Amazon Go also uses weight sensors on its shelves.
Stores would purchase the gear on their own, though Motukuri says the company can refer customers to installers. The full bill, for cameras, shelves, and installation, will run about $20,000 to $25,000, he estimates. Stores also pay a monthly fee based on square footage and sales volume for Zippin’s image recognition and inventory tracking service—which is how the company makes money.
Speaking of “bodega,” I reminded Motukuri about the startup that once went by that name. It promised to replace traditional stores with a vending machine model, and triggered an outpouring of rage against this assault on the neighborhood institution. “I think this would definitely help them drive up their sales,” says Motukuri, about traditional markets. “For most stores, the biggest problem is that they have a small [time] window where there’s a significant amount of traffic, and they don’t have enough people to serve those customers.”
Motukuri hews to the popular claim that AI will change jobs, rather than eliminate them. “Most people who are standing in one place and scanning the products–doing nothing else–can actually move on to provide better customer service . . . help customers find the product that they need.” (Like rivals, Zippin’s system provides automated inventory tracking for store owners, as well.)
Opening a full, functioning store is a big move for Amazon Go rivals. Amazon itself has only two stores at the moment–both in Seattle–although it has confirmed plans to move to other cities, including San Francisco and Chicago.
But Zippin’s store is a prototype, meant to showcase the technology for potential clients and investors, not to turn a profit. Zippin is ultimately in the business of selling tech to other people’s stores. The company has so far attracted $3 million in seed investment from Maven Ventures, Core Ventures Group, Pear Ventures, Expansion VC, and Montage Ventures. Motukuri won’t say if the company has inked any deals with stores, or chains of stores, to implement the technology.
Thus Standard Cognition remains the only such automated checkout company to announce an actual deal–to outfit up to 3,000 convenience stores in Japan by summer 2020. Standard Cognition will start with its own demo store in Japan, but not until 2019. So Zippin stands out as the first opportunity for the public to see if anyone other than Amazon can pull off the promise of line-free robo shopping.
This article has been updated.