Apple's Multi-Multimedia Patent App Could Have A Huge In-Store Impact

Apple has invented a way to let smartphones, tablets and computers share a single desktop by using projectors connected to each of the devices, according to a U.S. patent application that was made public on August 11. If that sounds like a cute conference-room gimmick—OK, it is. But it could also create an in-store opportunity to let customers use their phones for a lot more than scanning barcodes, receiving coupons or mimicking payment cards.

Suppose a customer's phone contains a shopping list of specific apparel items she wants to buy from another retailer—including images of those items or even links to them on the retailer's Web site. A shared screen could make it very easy for an associate to suggest alternatives or help the customer mix and match, whether the items are in the store or not.

The idea behind the patent application, "Projected Display Shared Workspaces," is that each of the devices would be equipped with a projector that could be used to blow up the screen image. The devices (say, a customer's iPhone and an associate's iPad) would communicate with each other using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or some other communication link so they could share data, including their relative positions.

Then the projected screen images would form a combined workspace that would also allow the users to move data or objects between the devices. Cameras in the devices could even detect gestures made by the users to move things around on the combined "screen." That way, the mismatch in screen size between a phone, a tablet and a larger display can be smoothed out, and customers and associates can have a single large workspace.

It's clever—but it doesn't seem especially useful if a retailer can already display all of its inventory on a big screen. Who needs a customer's phone when a store's kiosk or an associate's tablet can show everything that's available?

But of course, that's not everything that's available from the customer's point of view. There are other stores in the mall, and if she's already thinking hard about a particular skirt from a different store, a customer may be looking for other items that will go with the skirt. That's what she's come into your store for.

Now suppose she has the image of that skirt on her iPhone, and Apple has actually gotten these shared displays working. An associate doesn't have to know anything about the other retailer's inventory to make specific suggestions about what could go with the skirt—no guesswork involved. The shared display might even show a virtual mannequin with the other store's skirt and everything in stock that might match up with it.That gives associates a better shot at selling the customer exactly what she wants. And it creates an opportunity for a little stealth CRM data collection, because the system could also capture information on all the virtual items that customers bring in. If the customer is showing an item from a competitor's online store, it's easy enough to scrape that bit of product ID. Being able to identify what products customers go to other retailers for—especially when customers go elsewhere first—could be especially useful competitive information.

And even if no detailed product data is available, just being able to mix your store's inventory on a shared screen with the customer's own shopping list is still likely to deliver results that make the customer happier.

None of that is in Apple's patent application, of course. It spends its verbiage deep in technical minutiae ("For example, camera may detect a gesture that corresponds to an image sharing command to move an image from the current projected display to another projected display. The image processing software may interpret the gesture viewed by camera to identify the image sharing command. Processor may then retrieve and transmit data corresponding to the image to an electronic device for the other projected display to allow the other electronic device to display the image on its projected display").

And there's no guarantee that Apple will ever actually build tiny projectors into its phones and tablets, and then provide the software to make all this work. True, adding pico projectors seems like a reasonable next step to go along with the now-ubiquitous camera in every phone. Then again, Apple seems to have a hard time just building a near-field communication chip into an iPhone. Go figure.

On the other hand, why wait for Apple? Comparing items from different retailers on a single screen is something customers are already doing anyway—that's just E-Commerce with multiple browser windows open. It's how your customers already shop. And they already bring images of what they want, and even your competitors' Web sites, into your store on their phones. They figured out merged-channel shopping years ago.

If you can just identify how to support that in-store—with something more than an "everything you want is on our kiosks" approach—your associates will have just a little better chance to give customers what they want, and keep them coming back into the store.