Tag Archives: Technology

Walmart VR Home Reinvents Advertising

walmart_virtual_kitchen

A new Walmart experiment breaks not just the fourth wall but eliminates walls altogether as it enables a virtual reality (VR) tour of a home environment where close to 70 identified items are clickable for ‘more information’ and for access to a shopping cart/checkout page. Walmart says the example is an apartment, but the principle applies to a house as well as an apartment.

‘The fourth wall’ is a theatrical device where a player steps or speaks through the invisible front wall separating players from observers. An excellent, albeit exaggerated example cropped up recently a performance of Henry IV at Los Angeles’ Shakespeare Center.

When a member of the audience became ill and needed medical attention, the show was paused. After a few minutes, Tom Hanks, in character as Falstaff, returned to the stage to recapture the audience’s attention.

Come back here,” he yelled to a few “scurvy rogues who stood up from their seats”. “God has decided this play needed a second intermission,””  he said. “Get back here or find this sword and many a dagger placed neatly in the tires of your carriage,” to laughs from the still-seated audience members.

It’s unlikely you will laugh at Walmart’s VR show, but you may gasp in surprise at how cleverly the company and its team of technologists – see FTT here – put a mix of national brands and Walmart own label items in situ (where you’d see/use them at home). This goes well beyond simply telling you, as an ordinary ad does, what things are and what they cost.

In the kitchen, for example, atop a ‘Seville Classics Easy-To-Clean Bamboo Cutting Board’, alongside a paring knife, is a halved apple, with one half quartered. On the same counter there’s a ‘Black+ Decker 2-Slice Extra Wide Slice Toaster, Red/Silver,’ a ‘Color Splash Cutlery Set with Wood Block 6-PC,’ and a ‘Keurig K-Compact Single-Serve K-Cup Pod Coffee Maker’. A clickable yellow circle appears beside each item. When clicked, as well as showing the item, it offers a “click here to buy” link.

Each other area of the home is similarly highlighted with promoted items, and the 3-D VR presentation takes the viewer well beyond the simple product representation of a typical print or TV advertisement.

While this most likely is the first example of this technology you’ve heard, rest assured it won’t be the last. It truly represents a reinvention of advertising as we’ve known it.

The principals it employs are applicable to a number of other situations and environments. Think home remodeling, and how excitingly (and easily) different design element and surface treatments, among other things, can be presented with this technology.

For this and other reasons (see FTT), rather than viewing Walmart as just a behemoth retailer (2,700 or so US stores), the company increasingly needs to be viewed as an innovator, as a disrupter in the retail space. Hopefully you won’t be physically displaced, albeit by only inches, by upcoming Walmart robots tasked to help track out-of-stocks and more in stores.

 

 

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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!

Consumers Want ‘Clean’ Food Labels; Now Professionals’ Tool Helps Them Define What Is, Isn’t, ‘Clean’

 

Every so often (every fifteen minutes or so, it sometimes seems!), a new food-related ‘buzz word’ catches the ear of consumers – sometimes almost at the same time it attracts the attention of food industry professionals. Not long ago, the ‘new’ word, or phrase, was ‘clean labels‘ – meaning, among other things, labels free of multi-syllable, unpronounceable words naming ingredients no one without a science degree can understand.

Consumers want ‘clean’ labels – and the products behind them to be healthier, less likely to initiate or compound health issues, than too many existing products are, or appear to be.

Complex additives are put into food products for an assortment of reasons, including flavor enhancement (salt and other spices being good examples), an ability to hold various ingredients in a liquid, semi-liquid or solid formula (emulsifiers and stabilizers), and shelf life-extending (salt again, as well as other things). Some of these reasons have seemed to make sense to product producers, but increasingly, they make less if any sense to consumers. That, and the fact that consumers are increasingly demanding healthier, ‘greener’ foods, are leading causes of the clean label movement.

The tool at https://gocleanlabel.com/about/ was created by a professional for professionals, but consumers, too, can use it to learn more about the clean label movement and, more specifically, to answer questions they have about specific ingredients. Questions such as ‘what is this’ and ‘what is it meant to do’. You also can use it to identify still-being-used materials that are, or aren’t, ‘clean’.

Both food processors and retailers are making strong steps to ensure fewer potentially harmful (or simply unnecessary) chemicals are added to foodstuffs. Undoubtedly, there are people who feel the industry isn’t moving fast enough – people who would, in effect, throw the baby out with the bathwater: Good chems out with not-so-good (or absolutely bad!) ones.

Ultimately, members of the consuming public need to take a greater interest in educating themselves about food additives, and learn how to make reasoned decisions about what they’re OK with putting in their bodies, and what they’re not.

I am working on a feature (for fooddive.com) about the new nutrition label that has been developed by the FDA. It is tentatively scheduled to become mandatory on a majority of food products (all except those produced in relatively small volumes) in 2018. But there’s already some push-back from at least one organization, and you can expect more push-back as a result of what we can only imagine will be dramatic, drastic changes of direction by the incoming presidential administration.

The thrust of my piece concerns the fact that changes to the nutrition label, while very much a separate issue from the overall additives one, reflect the fact that both industry, which had a hand in shaping the proposed label, and government are struggling – and that is not too strong a word – to deal with increasing scientific knowledge about foods and with changing consumer expectations.

As a courtesy to the readers of this blog, I will post a short note when my fooddive.com feature on that topic is published. (FYI, I write regularly on ingredients for fooddive.com. And as I’ve done for most of the past 40 years, I also regularly scan food trade publications – and now, web sites, too – around the world for both industry trends and consumer attitude shifts for this blog, which originated in the mid 1970’s as a column for trade publications in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

(By the way, between them, this blog and my other one, YouSayWHAT.info, have been read in no fewer than 80 countries in the last year!)

Robotized Restaurants Coming Soon To Somewhere Near You

cook station-mcdonalds

A McDonald’s grill station: Soon to be a thing of the past?

A soon-to-open restaurant in the San Francisco area will point the way to a future restaurant owners will love, but some of their workers – soon to be former workers – will hate.

Hinted at in an article in Business Insider, this already-hiring-staff-via-a-Craigslist-ad eatery (see the Business Insider article),is said to be introducing a machine that takes allALL – the labor out of burger production.

Well, almost all: Someone has to load the so-called Momentum Machine with ingredients for the burger (including the to-be-prepared-to-order add-ons) and the bun, which the machine also will shape, bake and deliver, filled, to a customer pick-up station. The original Momentum Machine, introduced several years ago, could produce burgers at the rate of 360 or so an hour. The new version is said to be able to turn out 400 an hour!

One can imagine that prep workers, those who chop the onions and other bits and pieces burgers might be garnished with, will, in the short term, retain their jobs. But, realistically, it’s only a matter of time before one person will be capable of, and empowered to, do all the necessary chopping (via a machine) and feeding of ingredients into a machine that will thoroughly mix and evenly distribute them into portioned salads.

For some fast food restaurants, the cost savings such a machine can mean could mean the difference between barely being profitable and being very comfortably profitable. For future restaurants, not needing space for burger-making and possibly even food-prepping personnel could mean more of a facility’s floor space could be devoted to customers’ use. Or, alternatively, using smaller stores, reducing rent and other costs, as well as the savings machines provide by replacing workers.

Business Insider says the best estimates find that up to 50% of jobs could be automated by the late 2030s, with restaurant workers among the most vulnerable to displacement.

Some locations have already started moving away from human labor in an effort to cut operating costs. In its place, they’ve started relying on machines that are getting more sophisticated every day. Within the next 20 years, experts say, nearly every restaurant job once held by humans could get passed on to robots.

“A lot of what’s done in restaurants is already automated,” Rebecca Chesney, research and partnerships manager at the Institute for the Future, told Business Insider. “Today’s robotics can actually mimic human gestures that you’d need for cooking, for instance, way more than they could years ago.”

momentum_machine

In addition to Momentum Machines and its burger-generating giant – it “essentially works like a printing press for hamburgers, pressing patties, chopping toppings and assembling the ingredients into a sumptuous-looking sandwich,” the magazine said – referred to Eatsa, which FoodTradeTrends.com reported on in March, shortly after Business Insider profiles the new, old automat-style restaurant, where, as our earlier article said:

It’s computer-based ordering system – for the sole specialty, a bowl of quinoa priced at $6.96 and topped with whatever the customer orders, from a wide range of choices – is recorded and stored so when a customer returns, his/her previous preferences are  displayed and alternates are suggested as part of the approach to encouraging repeat visits.

eatsa

Instead of talking to a cashier to order their quinoa bowls, Eatsa diners build their meals on touch screens and pick them up from windows. There are no chefs or servers in sight.

Chesney says places like Eatsa and companies like Momentum Machines are strong signals for where fast food is heading because people crave speed and low cost — two qualities that human-run restaurants can’t offer the way robot-powered restaurants can.

Because not all customers are likely to want that degree of automation as part of their dining-out experience, lesser, significantly different types of automation can be anticipated in restaurants. However that plays out, you can be sure that a lot of staff also will be ‘out’.

 

USDA Spending Big to ‘Grow’ New Farmers

 

This long post is a reprint of a press release issued today by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While it is of little direct interest to consumers, this release does provide a lot of information about the efforts the U.S. Government is making to ensure the country has ‘crops’ of farmers and ranchers down the road – and that, incidentally, they will be well-trained, too!

AMES, Iowa, Aug. 17, 2016 – In a meeting with new and beginning farmers at Iowa State University today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new investment of $17.8 million for 37 projects to help educate, mentor, and enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers. The investment is made through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $126 million into projects targeting new and beginning farmers and ranchers through BFRDP.

In order to build upon the strong foundation of programs available to new and beginning producers, Vilsack also announced a series of Fall Forums that USDA will host in the coming months to highlight the progress made on the top issues facing the future of agriculture and set the stage for the next Administration to continue to support a strong future for American agriculture. The series of USDA Fall Forums will be hosted in partnership with leading universities across the country. Each forum will focus on a pressing agricultural issue, including land tenure and the next generation of agriculture, climate change, export markets, local and regional food systems, and groundbreaking agricultural research. High-ranking USDA officials will lead the forums and facilitate discussions with regional stakeholders to lay the groundwork for the next Administration to build on the progress USDA has made over the past seven years.

“Looking back on the past seven years, I am extremely proud of what USDA has accomplished for rural America. Even as this Administration ends, the important work of USDA will continue for the next generation and beyond,” said Vilsack. “We see new and beginning farmers and ranchers as a critical force in sustaining food security, food safety, and many other aspects of agriculture that will become even more challenging as our global population grows. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the forums that we are planning, will be important steps in helping young people, returning veterans and others access the tremendous opportunities in the agriculture sector.”

With the average age of the American farmer exceeding 58 years, USDA recognizes the need to bring more people into agriculture. Over the course of this Administration, USDA has engaged its resources to provide greater support to the farmers of the future by improving access to land and capital; building new markets and market opportunities; extending new conservation opportunities; offering appropriate risk management tools; and increasing outreach, education, and technical support.

Through lending assistance programs, like the Farm Service Agency’s new microloan program, USDA prioritized support for new farmers, providing improved access to credit, land, and equipment. USDA has also provided greater access to quality crop insurance coverage to over 13,500 new and beginning farmers and ranchers with special crop insurance benefits designed just for them. Thanks to this program, beginning farmers and ranchers have saved more than $14 million in premiums and administrative fees. More information on USDA’s assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers can be found at www.usda.gov/NewFarmers.

BFRDP, administered through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), has been a key part of this effort and supports educational programs to assist beginner farmers and ranchers who have less than 10 years of experience in the industry, including veterans and socially disadvantaged farmers. The program supports workshops, educational teams, training, and technical assistance throughout the United States.

This year’s awards will be made in 27 states and the District of Columbia to help fund a range of projects by partner organizations, like the Iowa-based National Farmers Organization (NFO) that will use $588,948 in funding to assist 900 beginning organic dairy and grain producers over the next three years. NFO will provide workshops, mentoring and other assistance in 11 states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

New Mexico State University and the Institute of American Indian Arts will partner to use $598,030 to provide education, mentoring and one-on-one technical assistance to American Indian Pueblo beginning farmers. The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, based in North Carolina, will use $513,959 in funding for Farm Pathways, a program to deliver whole farm training, farmer-to-farmer networking and farmland access.

2016 grants include:

  • Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, Fairbanks, Alaska, $369,500
  • Arkansas Land and Community Development Corporation, Brinkley, Ark., $481,080
  • ALBA Organics, Salinas, Calif., $600,000
  • Colorado Economic Development Office, Denver, Colo., $239,970
  • University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., $597,598
  • National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Washington, D.C., $150,000
  • North-South Institute, Inc., Davie, Fla., $330,828
  • The Kohala Center, Inc., Waimea, Hawaii, $564,000
  • Jannus Inc., Boise, Idaho, $597,867
  • Angelic Organics Learning Center, Caledonia, Ill., $600,000
  • National Farmers Organization, Ames, Iowa, $588,948
  • Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Overland Park, Kan., $380,433
  • Wolfe`s Neck Farm Foundation, Inc., Freeport, Maine, $573,256
  • Third Sector New England, Inc., Boston, Mass., $249,657
  • Tufts University, Medford, Mass., $599,796
  • Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, South Deerfield, Mass., $595,533
  • Future Harvest Inc., Cockeysville, Md., $597,599
  • ECO City Farms, Edmonston, Md., $352,095
  • Minnesota Food Association, Marine St. Croix, Minn., $159,626
  • Land Stewardship Project, Minneapolis, Minn., $384,649
  • Stone Child College, Box Elder, Mont., $265,179
  • National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Mont., $238,441
  • National Center for Appropriate Technology, Butte, Mont., $231,679
  • Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Asheville, N.C., $600,000
  • Foundation for Agricultural and Resources Management, Medina, N.D., $513,959
  • New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M., $598,030
  • National Young Farmers Coalition, Hudson, N.Y., $574,150
  • Just Food, New York, N.Y., $593,930
  • Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, Columbus, Ohio, $566,141
  • The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, $599,715
  • Southside Community Land Trust, Providence, R.I., $596,517
  • Clemson University, Clemson, S.C., $595,133
  • Tennessee State University, Nashville, Tenn., $470,083
  • Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, $600,000
  • National Immigrant Farming Initiative, El Paso, Texas, $541,950
  • Greenbank Farm Management Group/Organic Farm School, Greenbank, Wash., $598,850
  • Viva Farms, Mount Vernon, Wash., $599,999

Abstracts for this year’s funded projects can be viewed on NIFA’s reporting website.

Since BFRDP’s 2009 inception, the agency has invested more than $126 million through 256 projects across the country. Previously funded projects include the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association which trained 75 new farmers who established 68 new farms. A University of the Virgin Islands project trained 304 crop and small livestock farmers with less than 10 years of experience, increasing their agricultural knowledge and skills. Additional information about USDA support for new farmers and ranchers is available at www.usda.gov/newfarmers.

BFRDP also supports USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) Initiative, which coordinates the Department’s work to develop strong local and regional food systems. Over the last seven years, USDA has invested close to $1 billion in 40,000 local food-related projects on farms and in communities across the country. You can find local and regional supply chain resources on the KYF2 website and use the KYF2 Compass to locate USDA investments in your community.

NIFA invests in and advances innovative and transformative initiatives to solve societal challenges and ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA’s integrated research, education, and extension programs, supporting the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel, have resulted in user-inspired, groundbreaking discoveries that are combating childhood obesity, improving and sustaining rural economic growth, addressing water availability issues, increasing food production, finding new sources of energy, mitigating climate variability, and ensuring food safety. To learn more about NIFA’s impact on agricultural science, visit www.nifa.usda.gov/impacts, sign up for email updates, or follow us on Twitter@usda_NIFA#NIFAimpacts.

This month USDA is celebrating historic progress over the last eight years to improve the quality of life and access to opportunity for all Americans. Learn more online in The People’s Department: A New Era for Civil Rights at USDA.

 

 

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.