Category Archives: Technology

Bluetooth Technology Aids In-store Product Pushing

Do consumers need, when they go to the grocery store, more help than already is available from print coupons, downloadable coupons, window-poster ads, shelf extender ads, on-the-floor ads (for crying out loud!), and – less often these days – samplers hawking product samples in the deli, meat and produce section?

Retailers (and, bless ‘em!) manufacturers are always seeking to play their part in the ‘wait, there’s more!’ game popularized on late-night TV ads. The latest instore gambit, described in a New York Times article running to nearly 1600 words, is to reach out to unwitting (and even unwilling) shoppers through their smartphones.

Here’s how The Times leads into its article:

Imagine you are shopping in your favorite grocery store. As you approach the dairy aisle, you are sent a push notification in your phone: “10 percent off your favorite yogurt! Click here to redeem your coupon.” You considered buying yogurt on your last trip to the store, but you decided against it. How did your phone know?

Your smartphone was tracking you. The grocery store got your location data and paid a shadowy group of marketers to use that information to target you with ads. Recent reports have noted how companies use data gathered from cell towers, ambient Wi-Fi, and GPS. But the location data industry has a much more precise, and unobtrusive, tool: Bluetooth beacons.

These beacons are small, inobtrusive electronic devices that are hidden throughout the grocery store; an app on your phone that communicates with them informed the company not only that you had entered the building, but that you had lingered for two minutes in front of the low-fat Chobanis.

Bluetooth beacons, the article goes on to say, “are accurate within centimeters, using little energy, functioning like little lighthouses that emit one-way messages that can be detected by apps on your phone – even if the app is closed.

‘Living’ Version of ‘The Stalker Song’:                                      I’ll Be Watching You

All that’s bad enough, if you care a whit about your personal privacy, but The Times goes on to note that:

  • If your phone and a nearby beacon hookup, the computer on the other end of the beacon can be told what products you’ve walked by, and how long you’ve lingered in this or that department.
  • Foot traffic monitored by the beacon can reveal personal details such as your income and exercise habits; When paired with other information about you, companies can build a rich profile of who you are, where you are, and what you buy — all without your knowledge.
  • The app can be prompted to display ads for products you seem likely to buy.
  • It can send you a coupon after you leave, urging you to come back — a practice called “retargeting.”

Most people, The Times notes, “aren’t aware they are being watched with beacons, but the “beacosystem” tracks millions of people every day. Beacons are placed at or on airports, malls, subways, buses, taxis. sporting arenasgymshotelshospitalsmusic festivalscinemas and museums, and even on billboards.

The System Works Via A Phone App

In order to track you or trigger an action like a coupon or message to your phone, companies need you to install an app on your phone that will recognize the beacon in the store. Retailers (like Target and Walmart) that use Bluetooth beacons typically build tracking into their own apps. But retailers want to make sure most of their customers can be tracked — not just the ones that download their own particular app.

So a hidden industry of third-party location-marketing firms has proliferated in response. These companies take their beacon tracking code and bundle it into a toolkit developers can use.

The makers of many popular apps, such as those for news or weather updates, insert these toolkits into their apps. They might be paid by the beacon companies or receive other benefits, like detailed reports on their users.

That’s less than half what this article reveals. I urge you to read it to read it here.

 

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Sustainable Packaging: What’s New?

 

Renewables and reusables were among the new packaging product highlights at the recently concluded NRA (National Restaurant Association) annual show in Chicago.

Among the highlights, as reported by Restaurant Hospitality, were:

A unique system of reusable plastic containers from Ozzi, based in New Kingstown, R.I. This four-year-old company’s latest products are designed to eliminate the need for disposables. Ideal for foodservice programs at universities, military bases, corporate campuses or other settings, the system includes an automated collection box, where guests can return the sturdy, bright-green containers after use.

Ozzi2

If not returned, the guest is charged $5 per container. The containers are washed, sanitized and returned to the foodservice outlet. They can be reused up to 300 times (and at the end of their life they are shredded and recycled into yogurt cups). Ozzi officials said about 100 college campuses across the country are using the system, and some cities, like Truckee, Calif., for example, are starting to launch programs for restaurants.

minima

Minima, based in Taiwan, supplies compostable straws to chains like Starbucks. New this year, however, is a compostable to-go straw that comes in clear plastic-film wrapper, and that wrapper is also compostable. Minima also makes a line of compostable cutlery free of bisphenol A, or BPA, an industrial chemical in polycarbonate plastics that can leach into food, as well as various other alternative plastics for things like toothbrushes, sunglass frames and packaging tape.

ecoguardian

>             Canada-based Eco Guardian has a new line of Lock n’ Go compostable containers with tabs that glue closed to prevent delivery drivers from tampering with food, which has become a growing concern. Several packaging manufacturers at the show said they also were working on tamper-proofing features for their products.

Eco Guardian’s containers are made from sugarcane fiber or bamboo, with the option of both clear and non-transparent-fiber lids or base. Rather than a hinged clamshell, these containers are separate pieces, which creates less waste if used for dine in, when a hinged top might not be necessary.

That gives operators the option of putting two clear containers together, for example, for a cold item, or two fiber pieces together for something hot — or they can put a clear lid on a fiber base to mix and match. All are certified compostable, including the glue on the tamper-proofing tabs.

>             Japan-based Stalk Market has a new line of certified compostable plates and serving platters designed for dine in called Wasara, made from sugarcane, bamboo and reed pulp.

More like sculpture, these attractive pieces are designed to reflect the elegant lines of Japanese architecture. There are no lids, but they are stackable to create stunning pinwheel-like presentations.

Eco Products, of Boulder, Colo., was promoting its compostable cutlery, including a new line with no added PFAS to comply with upcoming standards. In addition, the company debuted its new “Cutlerease” dispenser that serves up knives, forks or spoons one at a time, with another popping neatly into its place. This eliminates waste and sanitation issues created around traditional cutlery holders which can appear cluttered and messy.

hay_straws

>             Hay! Straws makes biodegradable straws made from straw stems, a biproduct of wheat production after the grain is harvested. The stems are rinsed, soaked, washed and air dried to create a straw that functions just like plastic, and can be used in hot and cold drinks. New from the San Francisco-based company this year is the addition of three new sizes: Jumbo, Jumbo XL and Boba Hay straws, which are designed for beverages that are thicker and chunkier, like smoothies, shakes or boba teas.

>             Making its first appearance at the show is the recently launched Butterfly Cup, a paper cup that folds into a modified sippy cup of sorts, eliminating the need for plastic lids or straws, though some models include a straw hole, if desired. The Spartansburg, S.C.-based company offers a compostable version that is currently BPI-certified, though CEO Ackshay Vashee said they are working on meeting the new standards for next year.

>             Georgia Pacific was showing off what it calls the first disposable Dixie cup made from 100% recycled post-consumer fiber. In addition, the company also demonstrated its prototype auto-sealing beverage system that puts a sealed leak-proof lid on cups to prevent delivery drivers from taking a sip while the beverage is in transit.

 

Walmart Boosting E-Commerce Potential

walmart_super-cropped

 

Walmart’s determination to well-serve its stores’  and customers’ needs in the e-commerce area was boosted a few days ago when the company announced it is adding 2,000 technologists to its existing staff of 6,000 in that area by year’s end.

‘Technologists’ are the Walmart employees who work on the technology powering Walmart stores and the company’s e-commerce businesses, a VentureBeat report noted on June 20.

The new-hire technologists will join Walmart Labs’ offices in San Bruno and Sunnyvale, CA; Bentonville, AR, where Walmart is headquartered; Reston, VA; and Bangalore, India. This role includes data scientists, engineers, and product managers, And NowUKnow explained.

Walmart Labs CTO Jeremy King spoke exclusively with VentureBeat about the division’s hiring plans for the coming year, citing the company’s growing online grocery effort in particular as the reason for Walmart Labs’ expansion. Walmart currently offers customers the ability to order groceries online and pick them up in-store in more than 1,500 of its stores. That count is due to expand to about 2,100 stores by the end of the year, VentureBeat noted.

“Oftentimes we have 50 to 100 items in an order, and we don’t send one picker out to the floor to pick one order and send it back — we’re really optimizing the pickup, and they’re picking somewhere between 5 and 15 orders at a time,” King told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “They’re actually [dealing with] fascinating machine learning problems.”

Walmart’s most formidable competitor in the online grocery pickup space — also known as “click and collect” — is and likely will remain Amazon. That company introduced free, two-hour delivery from Whole Foods stores to Amazon Prime members in certain cities in February. (Amazon acquired Whole Foods in mid-2017.

And while it doesn’t yet offer a click-and-collect option, job listings for pickers in certain cities indicate that it may soon do so.

Danny Silverman, the chief marketing officer at e-commerce analytics firm Clavis, told VentureBeat in a phone interview that the algorithms data scientists at Walmart and Amazon develop to make grocery pickups more efficient will be critical in determining which one gains a better foothold in the space — most click-and-collect services are “are unprofitable to neutral for the retailer, and it’s more about the long-term value of the customer than making money on the [individual] sale.”

“A lot of retailers don’t have real-time inventory management, so it’s very difficult for them to take an online order and then fulfill it successfully — so a big piece of customer satisfaction and winning is going to be on how much they manage their inventory and deliver on [the order],” Silverman added.

Attracting talent to Middle America and the coasts

King also spoke with VentureBeat about the different hiring challenges and advantages Walmart Labs faces with its different offices. Walmart created the Walmart Labs division in 2005, following its acquisition of SiliconValley-based social media analytics company Kosmix, reportedly for more than $300 million.

In Silicon Valley, King acknowledged that tech workers don’t always readily think of Walmart as a technology company. That’s part of the reason why the technology arm is branded as “Walmart Labs.” King said that Walmart Labs often pitches workers on Walmart’s scale.

“Around 140 million people [in the U.S.] walk into a [Walmart] store each week, and getting access to play with that kind of data is intriguing to most people [in the field],” King told VentureBeat.

In Bentonville — where many members of the tech team work on merchandising, supply chain, and point of sale challenges — Walmart Labs faces less challenges from other tech companies for talent. But outside talent is less familiar with what Bentonville — a city of just 48,000 people — is like. The Walmart Family Foundation in recent years has invested in a number of projects to improve cultural and outdoors offerings in Bentonville, such as spending $74 million in developing mountain biking trails around Northwest Arkansas. Walmart is also the sponsor of the Bentonville Film Festival, launched in 2015.

One Family Moved from Philadelphia to Pentonville

Linda Lomelino, currently a senior researcher with Walmart Labs, told VentureBeat that she visited Bentonville twice — once for an on-site interview, and once with her husband and two children — before accepting the job with Walmart Labs and relocating to the area from Philadelphia.

“My husband and I did a lot of research about restaurants and schools and museums and cultural events — and any sort of surrounding experiences that we could have as a family. We also did a lot of research into the demographic profile of Bentonville,” Lomelino told VentureBeat. As of 2017, the city of Bentonville was about 75 percent white, 10.2 percent Asian, 9.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 2.7 percent Black, according to Census Bureau data.

King said that Walmart has also tried to create more opportunities for the tech community in Bentonville, hosting Tech Tuesday meet-ups at its office and working with engineering groups and other tech organizations for students at the nearby University of Arkansas.

“I think you’ll see more to come — J.B. Hunt (a major trucking company) and the other [companies] around there are all trying to attract technical talent to the area,” King said.

 

 

 

TEXT MSSG: “Your milk is starting to spoil. Dump & replace it.”

trinity materials scientists

Jonathan Coleman (center) and materials science team members at Trinity College, Dublin. (Photo: Trinity)

 

Imagine getting a text on your phone advising you that the milk carton in your fridge is almost empty (so it’s time to order, or pick up, a new one!), or that the milk in that carton is starting to spoil. It is extremely likely that will not only be possible, but be happening before you’ve experienced too many more birthdays.

A team of materials scientists at Trinity College in Dublin have figured out how to make that happen; They just need more time to work out some critical details, Smithsonian.com reported this week. Citing a more technical report published this month in the journal Science, Smithsonian noted that the key is a first-ever 2-D transistor made of a form of graphite – a natural material “that’s dug out of the ground,” said as leader Jonathan Coleman put it. The honeycomb lattice of carbon they’re working with is has a depth of one atom, making it suitable for an “unimaginable” range of potential uses, Coleman said.

One would be that milk carton label. Others could – and likely will – include supermarket price labels that update themselves, wine bottle labels that can warn you when the bottles (and thus the wine) are being stored in too warm a location.

Perhaps best of all, the new 2-D printed electronics are cheaper than current versions, and they don’t have the same performance limitations having to do with stability and energy conversion.

If you can print electronics very cheaply, you can imagine things that are almost unimaginable,” Coleman said.

“Smart” KFC in Beijing Is Not Quite Smart Enough

kfc_in_beijing

No one is paying any attention to the “smart” machine at the left of the photo. (Amy Hawkins, The Guardian)

Even in China, where lack of privacy is pretty much taken for granted, KFC is running into some resistance its efforts to employ a machine able to recognize facial characteristics to pre-select food choices for customers before they have a chance to choose for themselves.

The Guardian’s Amy Hawkins “test-drove” the machine at a KFC in Beijing’s financial district. Though the store was busy, she was the only customer interested in ordering through the machine, which was created by Baidu, the search engine company often called “China’s Google.”

Maybe the machine is too closely oriented to Oriental features to be able to make sense of Amy’s Western ones. Maybe that’s why it was a decade off on her age. Maybe that had something to do with why she was offered the same thing – a crispy chicken hamburger – as the 20-something male who demonstrated the machine to her.

If you don’t like the machine’s recommendation, you can click through an assortment of other food options until you find what you want, they pay for your order through your smart phone and pick up your food at the counter.

The device, in what’s being billed as “China’s first smart restaurant,” is going to need to get a good deal smarter if KFC follows through on its plan to install them in the company’s 5,000-plus stores across China.

A press release from Baidu said that “a male customer in his early 20s” would be offered “a set meal of crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and [a] coke”, while “a female customer in her 50s” would get a recommendation of “porridge and soybean milk for breakfast.” Fortunately, most Chinese would be too polite to bash the machine’s brain if it offered the “porridge and soybean milk” option to a lady in her 20’s!

Olive, Alive Oh: A Tree’s Genome Has Been Sequenced in Spain

olive-tree

Credit: Manuel Sánchez (RJC-CSIC)

The more that is known about a plant, the better the chances are for modifying its behavior and improving its product – be it a fruit, a nut or, as an example, a kind of fruit called an olive.

Researchers in Spain recently sequenced the complete genome of a 1000-year-old olive tree, and it is widely expected their work will – in time, but hardly soon – enable improvements in genetics improvement for production of olives and olive oil, and possibly also lead to advancements in protecting olive trees from attacks from the bacteria Xilella fastidiosa and the fungi Verticillium dahlia – something not accomplished anywhere to date.

A report on this breakthrough, which was several years in the making, appeared in the July 4 issue of New Food magazine.

The reason it will be some years before many significant result from the sequencing concerns the fact that olive trees grow very slowly. Very very slowly. That may have something to do with why they can live to a ripe old age of 3000-4000 years!

“Without a doubt, [the sequenced tree] is emblematic, and it is very difficult to improve plant breeding, as you have to wait at least 12 years to see what morphological characteristics it will have, and whether it is advisable to cross-breed,” says Toni Gabaldón, ICREA research professor and head of the comparative genomics laboratory at the CRG.

(“ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, is a foundation supported by the Catalan government and guided by a board of trustees. An institution without walls, ICREA works hands in hand with Catalan universities and research centers to integrate ICREA research professions in the Catalan research system. The foundation offers permanent, tenured positions to researchers from all over the world interested in coming to work at Catalonia. Over the years, these positions have  become a synonym of global academic excellence,” the Foundation’s website says.

(The Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) “is an international biomedical research institute of excellence, created in December 2000. It is a non-profit foundation funded by the Catalan Government through the Departments of Economy & Knowledge and Health, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, the ‘la Caixa’ Banking Foundation, and includes the participation of Pompeu Fabra University,” CRG’s website says.)

Pablo Vargas, who coordinated the three-year research effort to sequence the olive tree’s genome, says this about the research: “There are three phases to genome sequencing: first, isolate all of the genes, which we published two years ago. Second, assemble the genome, which is a matter of ordering those genes one after the other, like linking up loose phrases in a book. Last, identify all of the genes, or binding the book.”

Clearly not a simple, get-in-done-by-next-Tuesday project!

While the researchers didn’t say as much in the New Food article on their work, it would appear obvious that it won’t just be Spanish olive trees to benefit from their efforts. How, and how much, will come to light when it does – to scientists, researchers and olive-growing/processing specialists a decade or so from now.

3-D Food Printing: Coming Soon to . . . YOUR Area?

3-d_printer

A necessary aside: I am 73 years old. I am finding it increasingly more difficult, recently, to get my head around some of the totally mind-boggling technological developments smiling, hard-working 20-somethings are coming up with these days.

I ‘get’ that the cloud doesn’t mean data is likely to come pouring out of the sky on heavily overcast days. But the concept of 3-D printing of parts for this and that has caused me to scratch a new, hair-free hole in my head. Now I learn that, not just ‘on the horizon’ but already it is possible to 3-D print food!   

I’ve read about it; I’ve watched the video linked to below. I still feel that I barely grasp what in the world these people are doing, and what it suggests for the future!

But this is a ‘trends’-oriented blog, and this is, hard as it may be to imagine, a trend. I don’t expect I’ll ever be ‘printing’ any of my food, but many born much more recently more than likely will – probably sooner than you’d think!

In Sweden, a company named VTT says on its website it uses “4,000,000 hours of brainpower a year to develop new technological solutions.”

Among them – in a world where some solutions are chasing and anticipating problems – is a way to create interesting new food products employing 3-D printing – where, in this case, raw materials, actual edible ingredients, are combined in unique ways and either printed or extruded into interesting, imaginative shapes, familiar and even exciting new flavors in the forms of ‘foods’ the world’s never seen before. Foods well beyond, in short, what nature has created – but ‘good’ enough, in their own right, to attract – or so the imaginers say – commercial audiences of various sorts.

As recently as a decade ago, most scientists, even, would have declared this to be a fantasy – something that could never be done. But it is being done, today, by no less a name brand than Barilla, which is employing printing technology to generate pasta in both traditional and highly imaginative shapes. And Italy-based Barilla is far from alone in exploring this new frontier.

This video points to five companies creating means for manufacturers, and even families at home, to generate unique foodstuffs they’ve designed themselves, using either pre-packaged or ready-to-hand ingredients. (The latter, I gather, is more a hope than a reality.)

The imaginations of those creating products likely to become, within a short few years, as ubiquitous as the home microwave seem to have no limits. One company/research lab involved in such developments even has a slogan something like “If you can imagine it, we can create it”! And I don’t doubt for a minute that they can.

In the above-cited video, you see a room occupied by a number of people at computer terminals. Collectively – no, individually – they have access to more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon. The amount of computing capacity of such a research room is, today, almost impossible to calculate.

By comparison, the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the first atomic bomb (and, ultimately, the end of World War II), involved more than 130,000 people and cost the U.S. nearly $2 billion, in 1940’s dollars – about $26 billion today. They didn’t have a lot of computing power to work with – and that’s an overstatement.

Today’s whiz kids – that was the name of a 1980’s TV series – are seeing the technology available to them expanding so fast it must be hard for even these hard-wired kids to keep up!

One of my sources for this post was the U.K.’s New Food magazine. You can subscribe free at their website. But you don’t really need to: I’m pretty on top of what they say that should – really should – interest you.

One of the aims of this blog is to stretch your horizon – to take you places, in terms of countries, developments, and concepts – your schedule keeps you from keeping up with in the way I do.

I will be highly appreciative if you will get others in your organization to ‘follow’ me. I make no money from this blog, but I hope to do so – sooner than later.

(I’m getting on, and I have a 23-years-younger wife I hope to take places I’ve been. One year, 20 some years back, I saw Christmas decorations in New York City, London and Paris in the same season. It would be nice to do that again with someone who’s never seen either of the latter two cities! Social Security – plus her way-too-low salary – doesn’t allow for it. But support for this blog – and my other one, YouSayWHAT.info – could help do so!)