Time to pick up my game

I haven’t done any posts on Reversed Reality for about 2 years now.  Plenty of other projects and a young family have taken priority but it’s about time I got back into it.

I’ll be reviewing the augmented reality technologies that I’ve missed, then looking forward to where we can see the technology taking us over the next few years.  The emergence of new technologies like Google Glass, Ultra High Definition TVs, and smartwatches are the exciting new developments in the consumer technology field, but I think it will be the merging and interaction of these technologies that will have the most to offer for augmented reality.

Reverse logistics have steadily progressed over last few years and we are now seeing a high rate of consolidation in the industry.  The tension between manufacturers and retailers is as high as ever and smart companies have sought to bridge the gap with automated consolidation models to standardise and simplify the returns/repair processes.  However, these new models have brought their own issues and created new tensions.  All up, it is still an interesting industry with plenty of room for change.

Have a happy and prosperous new year!

Author:  Sam Williams



Absolutely stunning!

Check out this video from the Onya awards at Webstock 2010.  Great to see such impressive use of technology by a New Zealand company.  The projection is onto the back of the town hall and incorporates the organ pipes to great effect.

Well worth watching the whole thing in full screen, but my favourite bit is at about 4 mins in.

Visuals and projection mapping are by The Darkroom and the sound is by Module.

While on the topic of The Onyas, the award for Best Mobile Application went to GeoVector’s World Surfer augmented reality app for the iPhone.  Well done GeoVector and Cactuslab (who developed the app)!

Viva Las Vegas – Reverse Logistics Observations

Viva Reverse Logistics

The 7th annual Reverse Logistics Conference and Expo in Las Vegas held a lot of promise.  I expected to be blown away by the largest event of its kind in the world… and in many ways, I wasn’t disappointed (see my previous posts on my impressions of the conference itself).

It was very evident that there are some existing and emerging trends that will define our industry over the next few years.  Also, my discussions with other attendees exposed several challenges that will cause friction and create opportunities for those understanding the ramifications.

Observation number 1:  People still struggle to define Reverse Logistics

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there is a lot of difficulty and debate surrounding the term “Reverse Logistics” and the definition.  In the opening address, Gailen Vick the CEO of the RLA, redefined the RLA’s definition to:

All activity associated with a product/service after the point of sale, the ultimate goal to optimize or make more efficient aftermarket activity, thus saving money and environmental resources.

Immediately after Gailen’s address Dr Dale S. Rogers proceeded to rubbish Gailen’s definition and I think that reflects the lively debate around the concept and terms.  Clearly, reverse logistics is NOT forward logistics in reverse.  There are many branches and alternative paths as products move from retailer to repairer or OEM (manufacturer) to recycler etc and often processes involve an element of forward logistics to return goods to the end user.

It’s not necessary for there to be 100% agreement about the terminology, but consistency would help the industry to progress.

Observation number 2:  It’s all about the Environment

A very powerful theme of the event was the importance of the environment and sustainability now.  State, federal and international law requires OEMs and retailers to take responsibility for the environmental impact of the goods they sell.  Unfortunately, each state has its own laws regarding this and in many cases the laws are contradictory and inconsistent.  Therefore, reverse logistics entities are having real difficulty in meeting their obligations in a practical manner.

Organisations are now scoring their partners on their environmental credentials.  Walmart evaluates potential suppliers with a score-sheet before purchasing any goods from them, and the last thing they want to hear from a supplier is “just throw away returned goods”.  When a new supplier comes on board, the reverse logistics division of Walmart has the right to veto the supply agreement if the returns process is not handled appropriately.

Observation number 3:  But it’s actually all about Cost Reductions

The economic environment has brought cost of reverse logistics into sharp relief.  Most organisations have rationalised their operations and outsourced work that is not considered to be “core operations”.  This has resulted in opportunities for reverse logistics participants, but has also resulted in scrutiny of RL providers to ensure that they are providing true value for money.

So we are seeing a market with lots of opportunity, but also a lot of risk to existing business.  There is also a lot of flux which, while exciting to be involved in, makes it very difficult for organisations to budget for and fund.

Despite the new environmental laws, economic factors are more of a driver than the environment for now.

Observation 4:  Retailers and Telcos wield the Power

In New Zealand we are starting to see some power plays between the retailers and the OEMs as far as reverse logistics is concerned.  In the US, the battle is over and the retailers and telco network providers have won.

In many cases retailers dictate the returns and service processes to the OEM.  Supply agreements specify the processes that the retailers want, and suppliers are expected to accept those terms if they want the business.  Retailers and telcos are consolidating all their returns then shipping them back to the suppliers with no customer or fault details.  This makes it difficult for the supplier to refuse the returns (they simply don’t have enough information about the reasons).

However, it’s not all bad news for the suppliers.  As long as they can meet the retailers’ requirements, they will have a market advantage quite separate from price.  In doing so they should be able to afford to resource their design and quality control departments in order to reduce the reverse logistics needs and thereby improve quality and profit.

Observation number 5:  Asset recovery is a big industry

Repair, refurbishing, stripping for parts, and recycling is big business in the US.  The secondary market (i.e. sales of secondhand and refurbished goods) is about 2.5% of the US economy so you can imagine there is a demand for companies that can consolidate and process high volumes of returned product.  I’m not sure how this applies to New Zealand as we don’t have a ready supply of cheap labour to perform the service like the do in Mexico or China, but it is important to perform asset recovery as close to the market as possible.

Observation number 6:  There was not much emphasis on the importance of Reverse Logistics in improving Sales or Customer Satisfaction

This was a surprise.  I expected a big push regarding the importance of using reverse logistics to enhance the customer experience and increase sales… but it appeared to be an aspect that was overlooked by many.  This aspect is a big element of the pitch for Service Plus.  Retailers and manufacturers who have efficient, transparent, and high quality repair and returns processing have a significant advantage when it comes to sales.  Service Plus helps retailers and suppliers to drive more visitors to their outlets and increase the sales opportunities.

Conclusion:  New Zealand and Australia have a very different reverse logistics market to the US and Europe

Our small, well educated population and unique consumer laws mean different services have been developed for the Australasian market.  In many ways, the services and systems offered here are better (better communication, higher quality repairs, faster turnaround) but at the same time we have a lot of catching up to do.

Europe and the US environmental laws are well ahead of ours so our sustainability measures require a lot of work.  The US also has the efficiencies of scale and cheap neighbouring workforces; allowing for very efficient reverse logistics processing.  We will have to come up with unique methods to overcome the disadvantages we have in those areas.

It’s going to be an interesting few years!

New Microsoft AR maps

Blaise Aguera demonstrated new Bing Maps technology to TED Talks last week.  Got a great response and certainly ups the ante for Google.

Zugara ZugSTAR

Zugara have just launched their ZugSTAR technology that looks very exciting.  Mostly concept stuff at this stage, although they have integrated the platform into their Webcam Social Shopper as a proof of concept.

Picture a web based video conferencing system similar to Skype*, but with the added functionality of being able to see one another’s “augmented” experience in real time.  With ZugSTAR, Augmented Reality becomes a technology that facilitates collaboration, and physical distance becomes less of a barrier.

The video above shows the potential of this technology.

So how does it apply to reverse logistics?  Well, off the top of my head I can see several applications, but you can probably think of many more (Feel free to add your suggestions in the comments):

  • Remote training of products that have yet to be released
  • Escalations and technical analysis where issues and resolutions can be developed and demonstrated
  • Packaging and freight spatial calculations
  • Remote diagnosis and support
  • Collaboration and planning
  • Remote sales pitches and presentations
  • Modelling and design of logistics infrastructure and facilities
  • Breakdown and assembly process instructions overlayed on the actual item (“remove this screw”, “apply glue here”)

These are just elements as they relate to one particular vertical market, but I see this concept having much more far reaching implications about the ways we work, learn, meet, and communicate (and play).   As these technologies develop I expect to see wide adoption.  Probably not within the next year, but maybe within 5 to 10.

Products like the iPad (when it gets cameras) and the Google tablet concept will make a perfect match with this sort of product.  Multi-touch, portability, location/attitude sensors, and mobile data are all very relevant.

What do you think?  Can you see a future that incorporates the sort of vision demonstrated in the video above… or do you consider this is a technology without a need?  Feel free to comment.

iPad it is!

Will Apple's new iPad be the new standard in mobile computing?

OK, so Apple have made their announcement and they’ve gone with the name iPad.  Quite a surprise considering my understanding was that the trademark of iPad belonged to another company in the US.

Zak was first to pick the name iPad… but I think MR (Mo) got the specs and the name nearly 100% right… although he got the price wrong.  Well done Mo… your prize is on its way.

About the iPad… I think it could be a major game changer… but I have some concerns.

1.  It doesn’t appear to have cameras.  It seems to me a product like this should be very suitable for high quality photography and video, and also for video calling.  Not much chance of doing that without cameras.

2.  The Apple processor.  Apple hasn’t made/designed its own processors for many years.  If the processor is flaky, the whole concept will collapse.

3.  It might be difficult to hold comfortably and safely.  A 10″ device is not the easiest thing to hold in one hand.  I’ll reserve judgement on this until I’ve actually tried picking one up and using it.

Here’s the official video of the iPad

… and here’s Steve Jobs doing the presentation:

Pure Hype or Next Big Thing?

Graphical representation of technologies involved in AR as per GeoVector

Howard Wen writes in Computerworld about the evolution of augmented reality to date and whether the reality will be as big as the hype predicts.

While AR appears to be more useful than virtual worlds (and therefore more likely to succeed), it remains to be seen how the technology will be developed and adopted in real-world use. In particular, those in the business world would like to know if, and when, their operations could somehow benefit from using AR.

This is critical for the success of AR.  Whilst everyone is excited by the possibilities of AR for social media and gaming, I think the real proof of the concept will be as businesses develop the technology to improve their operations.  We are some way from that stage in the evolution of the technology but there are promising signs.  Layar and Wikitude and others have opened up their platforms to allow businesses to present their own content.  AR is currently being used for marketing, navigation, and in vertical markets like real estate.  We’ve seen concepts for AR’s use in engineering and other applications, but usable systems have yet to emerge.

World Surfer, Wikitude World Browser and Yelp’s iPhone 3GS app are typical of today’s mobile AR apps. They let people use smartphones to search for information about nearby restaurants, businesses and landmarks. Users can contribute comments and reviews about such places, and those reviews will be available to others, who you can access them by clicking on links that appear over the images captured on their smartphones.

I think these apps prove that the technology is definitely more than hype.

The potential market for AR products leans toward mobile devices, but, as mentioned above, current smartphones have technological limitations that curb their ability to support AR software. For one thing, their batteries don’t hold a charge long enough; any app that makes heavy use of graphics, GPS technology and networking components uses a lot of juice. But the biggest problem is that the GPS technology used in smartphones needs to be improved.

I would add that compass interference is also an issue for accuracy.

As for overcoming the stigma that it’s nothing more than marketing hype, AR might succeed where virtual worlds faltered because it’s grounded in real life. Becker muses that AR could become accepted as a natural extension of our perception of, and interaction with, everyday surroundings.

“Humans are driven to augment our reality, and to augment our own capabilities. From the earliest cave paintings to modern-day urban graffiti, we overlay our world with expressions of our inner selves,” he says. “Architecture, street signs, billboards, fashions — these are all visual and functional augmentations of the physical world.”

When people starting using augmented reality without even thinking about the fact that they are using the technology, I think we can then say it’s not hype.  Of course, by then, the question of whether AR is hype or not will be irrelevant.