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The best thing from this year's CES is a $15 foam cube

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I've been a CES tour guide for the last few years, watching time-lapse trends where 3D printing went from corner novelty to a huge exhibit and Smart Cities moved from notion to pervasive presence.

This year's CES was a retread of CES 2017, except that instead of Amazon Alexa integrations as far as the eye could see, this was the year that, in the quip of my friend Lori Luechtefeld of WIT Strategy, "Google basically shrink wrapped the entire city of Las Vegas, including the monorail!" So mine was a souvenir des CESes passées (remembrance of CESes past) experience– more big TVs and connected kitchen appliances and soon-to-be short-lived electric cars.

With one exception.

Smack in the middle of South Hall (around the corner from where Kodak proudly showcased 3D scanning and printing technology that turns you into a shrinky-dink, the same technology that has been available in my local shopping mall for years) stood Merge VR, based in San Antonio and founded by chief executive Franklin Lyons.

Merge used most of its CES display to focus on the dramatic 6DoF Blaster that turns your smart phone into a virtual super soaker, but the thing that made my heart get fluttery is the Merge Cube, a.k.a. "the hologram you hold in your hand."

The Cube looks like the love child of a Rubik's Cube and the tesseract from the first Avenger's movie: it's made of charcoal grey, lightweight foam, and it has intricate faux metal engravings on it. When you look at the Cube through the camera of your smart phone it comes alive. Merge's app superimposes holograms on top of the Cube, and since you can easily twist and turn the Cube in your hand that means you can also manipulate the holograms.

The Cube is completely intuitive and compelling– the opposite of the awkward paddles you have to use in most VR environments.

This might not sound exciting in the abstract (although if you click here you'll get a more savory sense of what I'm talking about), but up close the Cube provoked both the most excited squeals and most fascinated rapid speculation among my tourists.

With the Cube, you can hold a virtual skull or heart, turning them to get different perspectives and zoom in on what you want to see. You can twist engine parts and dental molds around to see how they fit together, and there are virtual games that combine features of Lego and Minecraft.

You can also place a virtual object and use the Cube to walk around it, so a virtual statue could either be in the palm of your hand or on your kitchen table where you can look at it from different angles.

Best of all, it's an open platform. Developers can build new and exciting experiences on top of Merge, and this last feature is what made the Cube my favorite exhibit at this year's CES. The open platform changes the Cube from a toy to a tool, from something that will quickly gather dust in closets to a vibrant ecosystem in the making akin to what Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain calls the "generative internet."

My tourists agreed: a cardiologist and med school professor thought that the virtual heart would be a wonderful anatomy tool for his students; an R&D scientist for a major cola company got a calculating look on his face when he imagined using the Cube to test new packaging virtually; a senior executive for a major Scandinavian auto dealership was excited to imagine her engineers learning about new engines more easily using the Cube.

Merge's product isn't just creative itself: it provokes creativity in others.

The biggest surprise — which I've spoiled in this article's headline — came when I learned the price point: the Cube costs just $15.

The LG tunnel of flexible TV screens is impressive. The Byton electric car prototype is beautiful. Alibaba's "smile to pay" technology is interesting (and a bit creepy).

The Merge Cube is important.

Marketers shouldn't let the Cube's low price point and toy-like form factor blind them to its potential: with even base-hit success the Cube will absorb a lot of attention, and attention is the oxygen that brands need to breathe.

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Havas breaks silence on Bolloré corruption probe as employee is formally investigated

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Havas has said it will fully cooperate with authorities after confirming that an employee of a French subsidiary is being formally investigated. It comes after Vincent Bolloré was charged by French police as part of an investigation into corrupt practices in Africa.

Vincent Bolloré is chief executive of the Bolloré Groupe the former chairman of Havas-owner Vivendi, and father of Havas chief executive Yannick Bolloré. It is alleged that he used Havas to finance the electoral campaigns of politicians, who once in office granted port contracts to the Bolloré' Groupe.

Havas’ global director of public affairs, Jean-Philippe Dorent, was questioned by police earlier this week. Havas declined to comment at the time, however, the agency group has today (26 April) said it is cooperating with investigators after he was put under formal investigation.

“Havas Group acknowledges that an employee of one of its subsidiaries in France has been put under formal investigation on Wednesday 25 April,” it said.

“Havas Group stresses that this employee benefits from the fundamental principle of presumed innocence guaranteed by criminal procedure. The Group will of course fully cooperate with the judicial authorities.”

It is alleged that managers at the Bolloré Groupe offered the services of Havas at a massively discounted price to help with the 2010 presidential campaigns of the Guinean President Alpha Condé and Faure Gnassingbé of Togo.

The agency’s involvement in the campaign is being linked to how the Bolloré Groupe then gained control of two container terminals in the ports of Lomé, the capital of Togo, and Conakry, the capital of Guinea, in the same year.

The Bolloré Groupe has denied that the agency did anything irregular.

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The changing face of retail: top trends and challenges

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If you were to believe the headlines, the death of the high street is imminent. Since the collapse of Woolworths in 2009 the UK retail scene has seen a wave of high profile administrations. For example, those Friday evening trips to the local Blockbuster are a thing of the past!

However, in reality, retailers are learning to innovate – looking at new ways to engage with audiences and understand the changing consumer dynamics that are determining the way they shop.

So here we have a look at some of the key consumer trends that have already impacted the way brands and retailers approach product positioning and marketing, as well as some of the new retail challenges and (and opportunities) you should be aware of now – before it’s too late!

The Millennial Market

The story of the millennial is only too familiar to readers of The Drum. Born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, these guys are digital natives who have grown up and matured with mobile technology and as such expect to be able to use it in every aspect of their life. Constantly on a variety of social media platforms to document their every move, and updating their profiles to project how they’d like to be seen by the world, the convenience of the mobile device is paramount to this group. And unsurprisingly the UK’s 14 million strong millennial population are more likely to start and end their journey on their smartphones than any other age group, who have started turning their mobile device into a handheld wallet.

Improving the payment experience through self-checkout kiosks and advanced digital payment technologies is essential to keeping the millennial shopper. The relentless focus on perfecting technology has set a new standard across the industry that millennials now accept as the norm. Retailers must be able to provide streamlined, user-friendly systems and processes in order to retain the millennial.

However, the challenge doesn’t end there for retailers, as a personalised retail experience is equally key. Whether this is online or in-store, millennials seek customer service professionals who understand their preferences and make recommendations tailored to their specific needs. Millennials want a customer-centric experience in which they feel wanted and valued. In order to do this, retailers need to closely examine what they’re currently doing with customer data, and ensure this information is being utilised to deliver a more personalised in-store experience.

The Conscious Consumer

Over the years, as manufacturers have looked towards cheaper and quicker ways of getting their products to customers, retail manufacturing practises have taken a serious toll on the environment. Second only to oil, the retail manufacturing industry is the most polluting industry on the planet. However, increasing awareness around these issues – thanks largely to the growing influence of the millennial audience (yes, those guys again) – has given rise to the conscious consumer.

Loosely speaking, being a conscious consumer means shopping and consuming with greater thought given to aspects of the product and business you’re buying from. For example, are they Fairtrade? Are their products responsibly sourced? And are they environmentally friendly? Ultimately this group aim to seek out ways to make positive decisions about what to buy and look for a solution to the negative impact consumerism is having on the world.

Another key concern for the conscious consumer is the way in which brands target audiences, both through advertising and the positioning of their products. As products and services expand to reflect the rich cultural makeup of the population, advertising efforts can be observed leading with non-centred perspectives that fall in line with a view to omni-culturalism, whereby effectively celebrating difference as the only norm. This progression demonstrates the need for brands to engage consumers around values less tied to traditional markers of identity such as race, geographic location and gender.

The Power of Omni-Channel

The omni-channel approach defines the new way in which consumers shop: by using all the options available to them. It could be suing a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, smart TV; they might go direct to a website to research a specific product or arrive through affiliate channels or email; engage through review platforms, apps, etc.

In the UK shoppers say that social media has an influence over what they buy – under 25’s – 60% and 25-34 – 50%, while conducting prior online research on the retailer’s own site or sites of other retailers led to 13% greater in-store spending among omni-channel shoppers.

Although not a retail strategy, it’s still essential to understand the multiple methods people use in their path to purchase as, ultimately, the more channels customers use the more valuable they are! A recent Google study found that omni-channel shoppers are three times more valuable to a brand, with Macy’s stating it is in fact as high as six times.

Geo-Targeting

With the rise of geo-tagging and GPS-connected applications, location-aware marketing becomes increasingly targeted. Engaging consumers by creating a more personalised form of brand interaction, location-based sharing taps into the tech-savvy demographics' desire to connect with their surroundings digitally. This omni-channel approach to consumer engagement denotes an evolution in how brands are targeting younger demographics.

Conversational Commerce

Gartner predicts that by the year 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without a human and that 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen by 2020. ComScore thinks 50% of all searches will be voice searches by that point. Voice user interfaces (VUI) provide consumers with a more natural and intuitive way of engaging with digital technology. This combined, with the growing popularity of connected devices in the home and car, will have a profound impact on how we shop.

Apostolos Lambrianides is group marketing and PR manager at Lick Creative

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Indian government issues deadline to Facebook and Cambridge Analytics for misuse of data of Indians

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The Indian government has issued notices to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to probe on the misuse of data, following Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data protection scandal .

The Indian government has given the two companies a deadline of 10 May to respond to questions related to Indian citizens’ data. This is the second notice in this regard, as the first notice was issued to Cambridge Analytica on 23 March and to Facebook on 28 March according to Livemint.

In a letter to Facebook, the Indian government wrote: “What security architecture is proposed to be created by Facebook, on an urgent basis, so that the data concerning Indians is not pilfered or manipulated again for extraneous purposes including to influence the elections."

The government has also sent five questions to Cambridge Analytics for responses on the data breach.

Despite any reputational damage incurred in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the reemergence of the #DeleteFacebook campaign, Facebook is expected to capture around 18% of worldwide digital ad spend in 2018.

Meanwhile, Facebook's largest brand campaign vows 'to do more to protect privacy' as it posts 50% Q1 revenue surge.

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