from my archives: interactive display concept for virgin mobile

Looking through my old project folders, I ran across an interesting unrealized design concept: An interactive retail display for Virgin Mobile. It was a display stand for cell phones that used proximity sensors to trigger an illuminated product shelf and a corresponding digital display. I made it for a business idea competition hosted by Virgin – I forget the specifics – something like a VC pitch or open innovation invitation. I submitted but never heard a thing back from them.

The system concept is totally unremarkable by today’s standards – any high school kid with an Arduino and a couple YouTube tutorials could bang this out. But here’s the kicker: This concept was from 2004!

The design was an extension of my thesis work at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, titled Active Objects, Surfaces and Zones. In my thesis project I extensively explored the potential for interactive control of dynamic retail lighting and digital displays.

Think of it this way – in 2004 the hot technology was Palm Treos. LCD flatscreens were still a new thing – most people were still buying hulking Sony Trinitrons. LCD screens for consumers around this time were roughly $100 per inch – I remember a 32″ LG LCD cost me $3,200 around that time! The Internet of Things wasn’t widely discussed, nor anything as future-forward as using architectural spaces as a portal to the virtual world.

Could you imagine if Virgin actually accepted my idea back in 2004 and rolled it out to their popular Virgin Megastores and Virgin Mobile locations? What a massive competitive advantage they would have had in bricks’n’mortar retail? But I was just simply way too far ahead of the curve, especially for retailers, who over the past two decades have proven stubbornly resistant to new technologies.

Clearly, I didn’t invest a whole lot of time in the rendering below (but hey, give me a break, as I would have modelled this in clunky old Autocad and composited it using Photoshop V6 or V7 – predating even Creative Suite – and as for my choice of scale figure…really?…I guess those were the fashions back then!!!!). But the functional concept is clearly spelled out in the text below.

Below is the text I wrote for the original business competition hosted by Virgin:

Virgin Concept Proposal

Make sure you tell us:

What your product or service idea is:

My service concept is an interactive retail display system for Virgin Mobile phones or Virgin Personal Electronics.  This display provides a convenient and intuitive system for instantly learning more about a specific product that a customer might be examining.

My concept entails a merchandise display that is composed of a structural armature,  proximity sensors (such as those found on automated faucets), color changing illuminated product shelves (imagine translucent “hockey pucks” that can glow in vibrant color, with a cell phone resting on top), a flat screen display (immediately next to the products) and a computer to integrate all three.   A mouthful for sure, but please refer to the attached concept rendering.

When a person reaches for a particular object (such as cell phone “A” of choices A,B,C, etc.), the sensor detects the person’s hand near the object, prompting the display shelf (which the product rests on) to glow red, with the display screen changing to a corresponding red background with the appropriate promotional information for the cell phone.  When a person reaches for product “B”, the shelf glows blue and the display switches to a blue background with the appropriate promotional information for product “B”, and so forth.  This simple system allows the browsing customer to immediately understand that the information on the screen is for the product he or she is grasping, without having to use a keyboard and mouse to search for that information.  The flat screen display could also be a touch screen, allowing for additional information or language selections if desired.

A basic system can be readily assembled using off-the-shelf technology with limited engineering time. 

Which business sector your idea falls into:

Virgin Mobile and Virgin Personal Electronics (developed in conjunction with Virgin Megastores)

What stage of development your project has reached:

My concept proposal stems from my graduate design thesis at Harvard University.  I studied infusing interactive information (which websites are ideally suited to provide) into retail spaces that sell tangible, highly technical products (like cell phones).  Contemporary consumers of high technology products need the factual information provided from product websites, but still require a hands-on, tangible review of the products before they make their purchase decisions.  The point of my thesis was to create a simplistic spatial interface, without the traditional keyboard and mouse, that allows customers to directly touch an object to prompt additional information.

Through my studies I have produced extensive conceptual renderings and two working demonstration prototypes.  During my graduate program, I received several grants of money and equipment to produce the first prototype.  After, I teamed with one of my grant sponsors (a small company called ColorKinetics that produces digital LED lights which change color) to design for them another prototype display, which they constructed at a tradeshow for their own products.  I won several awards and have been published in several publications for my work (please see my attached resume).

For many reasons, I have not been able to continue to develop my concepts into actual system installations.  The system concept is thoroughly “designed” but needs a real world installation to test and prove it.  An organization with a desire to create such a product display can readily create this system in-house, with a minimal amount of outside technology contractors.  Beyond a standard retail armature, the primary work is creating a simple sensor interface and then the accompanying media content to fulfill the product merchandising and branding strategies.

What your involvement is, what role you would like to maintain:

Up to this point in time, this has been an academic and a solo design effort on my part.  However, I am seeking to join a dynamic organization that has the sufficient internal resources to develop, test, implement, and profit from its use.

I am seeking a project manager role within Virgin for a period of at least a year, during which time my primary charge would be to oversee the design, development and evaluation of working prototypes of this system concept.

Why you are approaching Virgin and how you see Virgin becoming involved:

I am actively looking to join an organization that is seeking to differentiate its products through the design and implementation of unique retail experiences.

From a “new venture” standpoint, my project goal is to efficiently use internal Virgin resources to “roll out” this system concept.  Without the internal synergies offered by Virgin, this system would require much greater levels of investment (capital, time, staff, partnerships, etc) if developed as a start-up organization.  With Virgin, this system could be developed and evaluated in discrete, low risk stages.

The Virgin organization offers three opportunities for creating great synergy with this system:

  • First, this system would ideally suit Virgin Mobile products, promoting them in a dynamic new fashion while curing many of the “ills” of bad retail displays trying to sell highly technical products.
  • Second, such a system would showcase Virgin Megastores as cutting edge places of design and technology (while providing a real-world testing and proving laboratory).
  • Third, Virgin could apply this system across many other product lines, such as music, personal electronics, and food displays, in both its own Megastores and other retail venues.

From a personal standpoint, I seek to work with and learn from a diverse project team, with team members from throughout the many unique Virgin groups.  My goal is to develop into a leadership position for forward thinking creative design projects.

to explore and resolve the various challenges posed by such a project. 

What potential you see for the venture:

While the system will function as a terrific point-of-purchase promotional tool, its true power lay in using it as a real time, system wide “people counter,” to understand which products are getting the most hands-on time in retail facilities and which products are not.  The system could be used as an analytical balance to receipt totals, to understand overall efficiency of retail facilities at converting browsing shoppers to customers (in real time across the entire Virgin retail universe).

Virgin could maintain this as a unique internal I.T. asset for competitive advantage.  Or it could readily develop this as a stand alone technology group that is ultimately spun off.