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As the rain came down in Fayetteville on a recent dreary Monday, students under umbrellas and rain jackets scurried past a wall of windows at the front of a nondescript space in a very nondescript public parking garage on Harmon Avenue. Inside, the future sat quietly in the middle of the tiled floor in the gray light, antennas up, waiting with perfect patience for a command and a task to perform.
The robots, C7 and C9, are each about the size of a cooler you might take full of sodas to the lake. Even with their black plastic tops open, you'd be reminded of a cooler: Nothing in there but open space, though these will probably never see a bag of ice and a 12-pack of Coors.
Created by the Estonian tech company Starship Technologies — a company associated with the founders of the online calling service Skype — each of the boxy little robots squats on six saucer-sized wheels, like a lunar rover. Known as terrestrial drones, they are designed to solve the problem of the "last mile" — the final leg of every delivery, which is the most expensive mile when delivering something bought online. Each of the robots can travel along the sidewalks of Fayetteville at about walking speed, and can carry in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 pounds. They've been trundling up and down the hills of the campus for a few months now, their cameras capturing every crack in the sidewalk, followed closely by a student handler in case the little bots get confused or run into trouble, and controlled by a student operator sitting at a console blocks or miles away.
If you deliver anything for a living, from pizzas to flowers to takeout Chinese, here's the part that should make you seriously start considering going back to college yourself: By next fall, after the two earthbound drones have successfully learned the sidewalks and crosswalks and street corner hazards of Fayetteville, the plan is to have them start delivering packages from the university bookstore and the on-campus Walmart. They will do so autonomously, with no outside intervention or direction, other than a location to deliver to and a bit of human help if they run into trouble. In Estonia, robots much like these are already delivering pizzas. In not too many tomorrows, there may well come a day when the sidewalks of any city will be full of them, faithfully delivering everything from books to pharmacy prescriptions to birthday cakes like efficient little bees. That's right: The future is coming, very slowly, on six little wheels.
Right now the robots are the star attractions of what is officially named the McMillon Family Retail Innovation and Technology Lab, but what is known on campus as the McMillon Innovation Studio. Funded with a portion of a 2014 contribution of $1 million from Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, the studio won't officially open until October, but it's already a fascinating place to visit, even as it comes together.
The plan is for the space to be a kind of curated museum of future technologies, products and retailing, with rotating exhibits that showcase what our homes, stores, closets and pantries will look like a few months or years from now. It's not just some Disneyesque exercise to provoke a "gee whiz," however. The plan is to eventually make the Innovation Studio a moneymaker and creativity magnet for the university by giving companies big and small the opportunity to let the customer of the future — all those millennials rushing past the windows through the rain — come in, sample and test late-stage products so they can be tweaked before they hit store shelves, giving a vital thumbs-up or thumbs-down before millions of dollars are spent on packaging and marketing. Someday, a hungry freshman might get to wrinkle her nose at a spicy Thai chicken strip dipped in wasabi-flavored ketchup, and Heinz, Kraft or Tyson Foods will get a vital glimpse over the horizon at future trends, what works, what doesn't, and how they might shape their products and marketing to best meet demand.
Sue Sedberry is the managing director of the McMillon Innovation Studio. A former consumer researcher, Sedberry began her career looking for new technologies for shopping malls before moving into primary market research. From there, she got a job with Nielsen, the consumer research company best known for TV ratings, but which looks into all aspects of consumer habits. Her work there brought her to Northwest Arkansas, where she helped Walmart and Sam's Club learn how to use syndicated research data. She was hired by the university two years ago to create a retail lab for the Center for Retailing Excellence in the Sam M. Walton College of Business.
Her first lab, she said, was "one closet and about eight computers" running software that could create interactive virtual reality shelving and displays, allowing companies to try out store designs and layouts before putting money into real-world fixtures.
Then, last fall, The Parking Spot, a convenience store and T-shirt shop in the Harmon parking deck on the south side of the UA campus, closed. The minute the sign went up announcing the shop's last day in operation, Sedberry said, campus message boards lit up with people saying the location, featuring big windows and lots of sidewalk traffic out front, would make a perfect spot for her retail lab.
"Some people started sending emails around Walton College saying, 'Give the space to Sue! Give the space to Sue!'" she said. "So I met with students and said, 'Hey, if you want this space, what do you want to see done there?' " Sedberry said it took about four months for the university to decide to give her the space for the lab.
"We decided to try what's called pop-up retail," she said. "It could be something for two to four weeks and that goes away, something else comes in for two to four weeks and that goes away. We decided to make it more like a museum. Some things stay a year, some things stay a few months, some things stay a few weeks. That way, we can get students in and out of here to give us opinions on whether that technology is cool or that technology is worthless."
For example: If you've ever experienced the frustration of rolling around a heavy box of cat litter or a gallon of milk on the bar code scanner at the grocery store self-check, trying to get it to read the UPC code, you'll want to see new technology from the company Digimark. The technology can read a code from packaging no matter how an item is placed on the scanner, decreasing the amount of fumbling a clerk or shopper has to do to get that elusive bar code to read. It accomplishes that by way of having the UPC code printed invisibly on every surface of the packaging, undetectable by the naked eye, but visible to lasers in the scanner. How does it work? "I have no idea," Sedberry said with a smile. "It's part of the magic of it."
In the studio's "Kitchen of the Future," which is coming together thanks to help from Lowe's Home Improvement and Samsung, Sedberry showed off a $6,000 refrigerator with most of the door occupied by a large flat-screen display full of apps that can be manipulated by touch, like those on a smartphone. There's a white board that can be written on with a finger, a drop-down shopping list that can be synced to automatically update on your phone, a Pandora station to listen to music and other virtual gizmos. Any time the door opens and shuts, the fridge takes a picture of the shelves inside. You can see what's inside by touching the screen.
You might be asking, "Why not just open the door?" Here's why: You can pull up that picture on your synced cell phone. If you're at the grocery store, worried you're out of something because your teenager has been at home emptying the fridge all day, all you have to do is take out your smartphone, pull up the picture taken the last time the door was shut, and check the level of the milk in the jug or the number of olives in the jar.
"If I'm in a high-end house and have a lot of kids running around," Sedberry said, "I would certainly interact with this thing, just because it cuts down on the amount of paper and grocery lists and consolidates it all in one place."
Looming over the kitchen space is a large, flat-panel TV that's Roku-enabled, a nod to students telling Sedberry and others that cookbooks are so 20th century. Instead, they prefer to watch online videos to learn how to cook. Even the stove, crock-pot and coffeemaker in the kitchen can be controlled by cell phone. Worried you left the coffeemaker on? Check your cell phone. Bought a take-and-bake pizza? Turn on and preheat the oven while sitting in traffic on your way home. The so-called "Internet of Things" is coming soon to a kitchen near you.
Most consumer research is done on the East or West Coast, Sedberry says, but testing on the UA campus will give companies a look at the preferences of the region. Though Walmart is neither sponsoring nor getting an inside look at the research that will be conducted at the studio, Sedberry said, it helps to have the 500-pound gorilla of retail in the neighborhood, given that over 1,200 companies, most of them Walmart suppliers, have offices in Northwest Arkansas, including Kraft, Pillsbury, Procter and Gamble, and others.
The Starship robots came to town thanks to a conference call Sedberry was on with representatives of the company after they had demonstrated the technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. During the call, Sedberry said, representatives of Starship were talking about testing in the snows of Estonia and in the United Kingdom when she recognized there was something missing from their test locations: hills.
"I asked them if they'd consider testing in Arkansas," she said, "because I had hills, and if they were truly interested in testing reliability and performance, they really needed to bring it to the University of Arkansas, where the students could interact with the robots up and down the hills. They didn't know where Arkansas was, but they agreed [that] on their way from Atlanta to San Francisco that they would stop here. We got them some meetings with people at Walmart to see if there was any interest there."
The engineers were so impressed with the location that they left one of their robots behind for testing. Later, they delivered another. Operators and handlers have almost completed phase one, teaching the robots the sidewalks of Fayetteville. The Starship robots will then go on the road to other places in the state, including Little Rock, where they're scheduled to test near the River Market the week of May 23. On the University of Arkansas campus in the fall, the drones will begin delivering packages, mostly autonomously.
Student Kayla Bruskas has been a volunteer with the project about a month, and has worked as a robot handler and operator. She also helps do basic maintenance on the two terrestrial drones. Currently studying accounting and supply chain management, she said that the robots have created a buzz on campus.
"There's a lot of students who know what we're doing right now," she said. "To see how the robot works, they'll actually jump in front of it. Or there's a car that might not be looking, and they get close to it. The robot actually senses that and stops immediately." Bruskas, who plans to stay on as a volunteer after the robot testing is done, likes that the students contributing to the direction and focus of the Innovation Studio come from diverse academic disciplines.
"For me," Bruskas said, "it's really interesting to have a group of engineers and business students coming together on projects. Normally on campus, the business students stay on one side of the school and engineers on the other side. So it's been really cool for me to maybe show them a thing or two about business ... . They've showed me a thing or two on how to fix this and really understand the mechanics behind it."
Dr. John Kent is the director of the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the UA. A professor of supply chain management, he has worked closely with Sedberry in the creation of the McMillon lab.
"When we think of a museum, we think of a curator," he said. "We think of someone who is organizing the things that are displayed in a museum. But in our case, Sue and I think it's our role to curate what's going to happen in this lab in the future. We have ideas and are working with companies on aspects that, if you come in October or November, you wouldn't have seen if you were here this week."
The location of the Innovation Studio — in a high-traffic area on campus, with plenty of windows — makes it perfect for drawing in people, he said. Like Sedberry, Kent said the value of the lab won't be in testing top-secret products or tech, but in getting a last-minute, real-world look at how products might perform, and how consumers might react, just before the products go to market. The Starship delivery robots are a good example.
"With the robots, they're still in early development, but they're not top secret anymore," he said. "They want as much press as they can get for their potential new product. Now, is it ready to be sold and to autonomously go around campus delivering products yet? No, but that will happen this fall. The fourth quarter is a good way to think about it: right before we're ready to go and put it in the market. As opposed to first quarter stuff, which would be in a basement somewhere, instead of sitting in a fishbowl for everybody to see what's going on."
Sedberry plans for the Innovation Studio to never be stagnant, with students working with companies big and small to bring in the latest products and technologies, showcased in displays that help put those items in a real-world context. Right now, for example, students studying fashion merchandising who were impressed by the Kitchen of the Future are working on creating a "Closet of the Future," which — once it evolves beyond pieces of colorful tape on the floor — will show how technology will shape the high-end clothes closet of tomorrow. This summer, Sedberry is considering turning the Innovation Studio into a showcase for foods grown, cooked or packaged in Arkansas, with free samples of items by companies big and small. A lot of small food businesses in Arkansas, she said, don't have any consumer insight at all.
"It would be great fun to use the Kitchen of the Future and some demo carts and invite people in on their tours of the campus and say, 'By the way, did you know we make this barbecue sauce [in Arkansas]? We make this mueslix, we make fermented okra, mashed cauliflower. We have a lot of things we make right here in Arkansas, and it would be great to give them visibility."
Sedberry said she wants the students coming in the fall semester to set the agenda for what's next, and for the McMillon Innovation Studio to constantly be in flux. Come back in a few months, she said, and the space might be remade as a bedroom, or a grocery store checkout.
"I'm trying really hard to have this be a student-led initiative," she said. "Things they've read about, things they think would be cool. That's the shopper of the future, right? That should be of interest to a lot of people ... . It's not build it once and you're done. It's constantly changing exhibits or thoughts or processes or services. That's the fun about being able to innovate. You're not done. Just because [you] visited this once doesn't mean you can't come back in three or four months and find something completely different."
A reporter, excited with the heady whirl of the future all around him, at last pointed to something he'd puzzled over: the bicycle leaned against one wall, clearly on display, the handlebars crowned with a crate. What, pray tell, could be the high-tech, futuristic secret of that seemingly ordinary item?
"That's just a student's bicycle," Sedberry said with a smile. "The bike rack is outside in the rain."
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