How BT innovations being showcased in Suffolk could transform the way we shop

Harriet, the mannequin with a moving, life-like head

Harriet, the mannequin with a moving, life-like head - Credit: Archant

At the heart of BT’s research and development headquarters at Adastral Park in Martlesham, scientists have been developing technologies that could transform our experience of retail shopping.


Harriet - Credit: Archant

The face of shopping changed irreversibly in 2018, as we lost some much-loved British retail brands and several others appear to be on their last legs. But some brands are fighting back the tide of retail gloom by using the latest cutting edge technology to attract shoppers into their stores.

Adastral Park is a hotbed of innovation. It’s where, back in 1984, the technology at the heart of all global networks - the single mode optical fibre - was perfected. Could Adastral Park now hold secrets that could help to revive Britain’s retail sector?

BT’s Showcase rooms are where its retail innovations are demonstrated to corporate clients. BT’s Showcase manager, Shane Allum, gave us a sneak peek at some of the technologies being pioneered there that BT is hoping will one day be appearing on a high street near you.

Harriet at BT Adastral Labs

Harriet at BT Adastral Labs - Credit: Archant

‘Harriet’, the mannequin with an ever-changing, moving, talking head

As you walk across the Showcase room, you can’t help but to spot Harriet straight away - and that, according to Mr Allum, is kind of the point.

“Stores can change out her head, and put in whatever you like - you can even get odd ones, like this eagle!” he explained. “The head would welcome you into the shop. So if the store had some sort of celebrity brand endorsement, then that celebrity’s face could appear on Harriet.”

BT - hologram to woo shoppers

BT - hologram to woo shoppers - Credit: Archant

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3D hologram to attract shoppers into stores

A hologram is also likely to grab your attention from across the shop floor, and for that reason, BT has already started putting them into it’s stores.

The hologram effect is made using a fan on the wall with LEDs that run the length of it. A content management system tells those LEDs what colour and variety to be for the platform and once it finishes, it produces holograms. BT also has a mirror projecting video feed which looks holographic.

Shane Allum showing a system that could enable carrots to be picked at the supermarket in the future

Shane Allum showing a system that could enable carrots to be picked at the supermarket in the future. - Credit: Archant

Technology that could help to make crops grow in shops.

BT is looking at the possibility that years from now, you could walk through a shop and pick your own carrots as you walk through the supermarket. “We are trying to contextualize things in ways that people haven’t thought about,” says Mr Allum.

To this end, researchers have come up with a system that, among other things, could enable crops to grow more quickly in confined spaces like supermarkets, with no soil necessary. A nutrient-rich water vat would feed nutrients into these crops, as red and green light in shone onto them through a light system.

BT Showcase exhibit depicting the future of the retail experience

BT Showcase exhibit depicting the future of the retail experience - Credit: Archant

The invisible bar code

Some retailers are now putting bar codes on every side of the product packaging, which Mr Allum believes makes it less visually appealing on the shelf. The idea of the invisible bar code is that you can’t see it, but it’s still there. It captures an image and retrieves data by appearing to be a light projecting out. And it has other potential uses too.

“I like the idea that when you go into a museum, you could scan invisible marks at a point of interest to see that information,” says Mr Allum. “Or you could wave such technology over food packaging to play the recipe for a particular meal.”

BT's retail showcase area technology

BT's retail showcase area technology - Credit: Archant

The data chip that tracks store items in real time

Imagine a shop selling products that have tags on them that contain a radio frequency ID chip which you can’t see, but from which gives out useful information when you put it on a reader.

“We’ve got those readers up on the ceiling tracking in real-time the products in the shops, so we know where things are,” says Mr Allum. “With clothing, once a customer has tried it on, you can tell your shop assistants to replace it. You could change the experience for your customers, so the displays move - maybe you can look at the product in different colours. There are up-selling opportunities.”

BT retail tech at its Showcase

BT retail tech at its Showcase - Credit: Archant

Interactive mirrors

These mirrors can detect what item of clothing you’re trying on and make suggestions which appear in the mirror.

You could also request another item to appear. BT is also trialing a smart selfie mirror, so instead of sending a ‘does-my-bottom look-big-in-this’ type Selfie message to friends on your phone, you could send it in the mirror itself to any social media group.

BT retail tech - changes the colour of outfits

BT retail tech - changes the colour of outfits - Credit: Archant

Touch table to show what products looks like in different colours.

Imagine you’re thinking about decorating your house, and you go into a kitchen design store. You could take in a picture of what your kitchen looks like now, and see what different flooring materials would look like on it - maybe you could see what the paint would look like on your wall and it would be bespoke to you.

This technology enables you to do this near enough in real time.

The interactive charger for coffee shops

Imagine you’re in a coffee shop and the waiter gave you a wireless dongle to plug your phone in and charge it up.

Mr Alum explains: “If you had a particular app, the store could get analytics on how long that phone has been charging, and perhaps the store could then send you a ‘would you like 50% off your next coffee?’ notification. It’s all about making that experience a little bit more comfortable for the customer.”