Technologies of tomorrow?

Technologies of tomorrow?

Neon Kelly reports from Accenture’s innovation lab in France

Every year, 150 of the world’s largest corporations join a series of technology workshops hosted by Accenture. The consultancy’s innovation programme has been running for two decades and now employs 150 researchers at four labs across the world.

Our correspondent in France visited the facility at Sophia Antipolis, to take a look at what is coming.

Visual shelf monitoring

Busy retailers have a constant challenge to maintain a steady flow of products from the stockroom to the shelves.

Slow restocking can cost a large chain up to $4bn (£2bn) a year, according to a US retail trade association. There can also be legal issues ­ – many shops have deals with manufacturers that guarantee a level of display.

According to Accenture, one possible answer is a camera system to identify which products are on display, linked to matching software that monitors when gaps appear and automatically sends a request for missing items.

The system uses a database of signifying characteristics unique to each item ­ – such as label design or the shape of the container ­ – and compares the patterns it sees with those in its memory.

Several retailers are interested in the technology, according to Accenture. And a pilot scheme is expected in the near future.

Real-life trials will help perfect the software, said lead researcher Agata Opalach.

“We need to implant our thoughts in a real store to solve the faults that still exist,” she said. “The technology could go into shops today, it is just the business case that needs to be validated.”

Pocket supercomputer

Because of their size, portable devices typically lack processing power and are unable to handle large volumes of data at any speed.

The pocket supercomputer’s solution is to transform a mobile phone into a thin client, leaving the heavy work to be handled by large-scale computers elsewhere.

Making use of technology similar to that in the shelf monitoring project, the critical interface for the system is the phone’s camera. A brief video call relays information back to software comparing the image with a database of relevant feedback.

So, filming a street sign could summon a map of the local area, for example. Or taking the phone to a supermarket could allow you to go shopping in a foreign country, or to translate blocks of text.

There are also possibilities for boosting retail markets, said researcher Fredrik Linaker.

“There are now many chains that have both physical shops and online stores ­ – which sometimes have more stock,” he said.

“Showing the phone a given object might mean you could be offered a range of different items and prices.”

At this stage, the main stumbling block is the need for specific databases to cater to different uses of the phone. But Sophia Antipolis researchers are working on web crawler programs to gather data automatically.

Smart energy grids

The debate over smart meters is well under way in the UK. But real-time electricity meters may be only the beginning of wider changes.

Later in the year, Accenture is helping US utility firm Xcel Energy to build a Smart Grid City as a showcase for the uses of networked energy technologies. The location will be announced in March and plans include building a fully interconnected power system to support a community of 50,000 to 100,000 residents.

Buildings will be equipped with devices enabling two-way communication between residents and utilities. Another possibility is for lights that show how much energy is used and communicate when they need replacing. Or for gas boilers that generate electricity when they heat the water and relay it back to the grid.

As homeowners get used to the idea of greater control over their energy use, the possibilities of decentralised energy grids increase, said senior researcher Marion Mesnage.

“The cars of the future will be electric and rechargeable, so drivers will be able to plug their vehicles directly into the grid,” she said.

“Aside from the convenience, you could also direct the battery to download power when it is cheap, then sell it back when it becomes more expensive.”