Visitor attraction

While digital technology may represent a threat to the high street, it might also hold the key to enticing visitors back to built environments

When Nike opened its Fuel Station store in London recently, it boldly announced that “we’re changing the way we do retail”. It’s not alone.

The Nike store features interactive information screens and digital mannequins, plus Kinect and augmented reality technology. Such new kit offers designers of built environments – whether shops, museums or other spaces – new ways to engage and inform visitors. Thus technology is potentially both the enemy and the friend of the high street. Online browsing and buying negates the need to visit a real building. But, by introducing digital tools and gadgetry into their environments, shops and museums hope to make a real-world visit more exciting and involving.

Adidas’s Virtual Footwear Wall, currently residing in the Adidas store on Broadway in New York, first appeared in the Oxford Street Adidas store in London for two weeks in November last year and was used as part of a campaign to launch its f50 miCoach football boot. The installation is an amalgamation of various technologies including touch screens, cameras, gender-recognising software, real-time rendering of animations, and carefully designed sound. The technical fanfare it created around the boot launch apparently helped increase sales by 500% compared to a normal football boot launch.

“This project wasn’t about plugging the latest piece of technology into an idea,” says Liz Sivell, executive creative director at Start JudgeGill, which designed and produced the project. “We wanted to give people numerous evolving experiences that embody the spirit of the brand and stimulate their senses. We wanted to take them on an emotional journey of discovery – that way they will remember it. Technology just helps us create this, but to the consumer it has to be completely seamless, whether you use smell, lighting or sound. It doesn’t have to be a massive screen, it just has to be relevant.”

While it makes practical sense for a sports brand with more products to browse than it can physically fit in one store to have touch screens mounted on a wall, not all brands will want to embrace technology in their retail environments in the same way. “When I worked with Mulberry on the scoping of their new site they had a very clear idea of how much technology should be involved in the customer experience and how much they should allow current digital trends to inform the customer journey,” says Ross Phillips, a digital consultant who regularly creates installations for retail and exhibition environments. “They have a high level of service in their shops and understand that well-informed staff discussing a product is a better experience than browsing through images on an iPad, no matter how high the resolution. That’s not to say these two can’t exist together, it’s just a case of having a clear idea of what feels right for a brand and not to let the technology dictate.”

One very good reason why technology shouldn’t lead the look of an environment, whether it’s a retail or exhibition space, is the speed at which both hardware and software are developing. “Because technology is moving so quickly, you can invest massively in this sort of thing and then two years or even two months later something you thought was innovative and exciting suddenly looks really out of date,” warns Alex Wood of design studio Holmes Wood.

One possible example can be found in London department store Selfridges which recently opened its new Designer Galleries. Here shoppers can browse the wares of luxury fashion brands. In the changing rooms, a three-screen installation allows users to take photos and even video of themselves in the clothes they’re trying on. But while shoppers can email themselves or friends the images or video they create, they can’t post images on Facebook or Pinterest or Instagram or Twitter. By not acknowledging the myriad ways many of its customers now use social networks, the installation runs the risk of seeming out of date despite the fact that it’s only been in situ for a month.

“Technologies such as digital screens, touch screens or motion sensors actually work very well when used in an event-based pop-up or a temporary exhibition,” suggests Wood, “but build them into a permanent environment and they can become troublesome.”

Wood is one of the organisers of the 2012 Society of Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) International Symposium taking place at London’s V&A Museum on April 27. The event will host a session devoted to looking at innovation in environmental graphic design.

“Technology is changing the face of environmental graphic design, particularly so far in wayfinding, and most particularly in helping visitors or users navigate through complex built environments,” says Pat Knapp, director of communications at SEGD. But rather than expensive hardware installations, perhaps software offers a better long-term approach. “We’ve seen a lot of large museums, hospitals, and campuses developing wayfinding apps, and many environmental graphic design firms are adding app development to their services,” Knapp notes. “What I think we will see in this arena in the future is the addition of more interpretive elements to these apps.”

Using its own patented software, US company Meridian has created various wayfinding apps, perhaps most impressively for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This app contains interactive maps of the museum’s various floors and because the venue has ‘location aware’ wi-fi it knows where visitors are at all times, thus enabling it to better inform them how to get to where they want to go or even to deliver information about the exhibit in front of them at any given moment, in any given location on site.

Our phones are full of information about us, making it possible for them to filter incoming data so that only the most pertinent or relevant information comes through the device. This is what Rob McIntosh of frog design in Munich, one of the speakers at the SEGD Symposium’s innovation session, refers to as “the art of big data”. One of the ways he believes rich layers of information can be viewed and accessed is through a new approach to augmented reality. “We hear about augmented reality and see some applications of it but the problem with AR today is that it’s not loaded with different mash-ups of data to give you an intelligent picture of what you’re looking at,” he says. “It tends to be dependent on that data being preset into the experience, rather than it being really live.”

Frog worked with Intel to create an augmented reality screen that could be used in retail spaces. When a user stands in front of its seven-foot screen, they can look through its clear surface into the shop beyond. Additional data about relevant items in the shop is then brought up on the screen. “The idea is that you can scan across a space and also see a set of layered information – what would be on sale, maybe the system allows you to see items you bought in the store on previous visits, or maybe points you to all that might be of interest in the physical space.”

In retail shops, a fixed screen may just be more appropriate than a mobile device, Phillips thinks. “In these environments people usually have a primary goal that doesn’t involve fussing about with technology so whatever you design has to fit seamlessly in with their journey or it won’t be used,” he says.

“People use the latest technology because there is a buzz about it and it’s easy to PR, but it should never be about the technology as there will always be new stuff coming along,” he continues. “We need to concentrate on providing engaging experiences whether they use an old cardboard box and some paint or the latest smartphone. Start with an idea then use whatever technology is appropriate, not the other way around.”

The SEGD International Symposium takes place at London’s V&A on April 27. Speakers include David Adjaye, Kenneth Grange, Malcolm Garrett, and Rob McIntosh. More details can be found at segd.org

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