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Future of retail may include cell phones among blood cells

A shopping trip in the not-so-distant future promises to be a virtual reality version of a fully stocked store projected in 3D from eyeglasses to your retina.

The eyeball assist — reminiscent of The Terminator when the Arnold Schwarzenegger-portrayed cyborg could pull up statistical readouts on his targets — could be summoned even while shopping in a conventional store. It's all done by a cell phone.

"The cell phone is the gateway to everything. In 10 years it will be embedded in your belt; in 20 years it will small enough to be injected into your bloodstream,'' said futurist Ray Kurzweil.

That was one of many predictions served up to chief marketing officers from 40 major retailers at a conference this week in St. Pete Beach.

Kurzweil's predictions go far beyond marketing. Many signal profound changes in society:

• Artificial intelligence will be indistinguishable from human intelligence by 2029. Tiny robot computers could be injected into the bloodstream and downloaded to reprogram body functions as they wear out or need updating. Humans will realize they need implanted artificial intelligence just to keep up with the pace of change.

• The software of life — the human genome — has been mapped, so it now can be linked to the exponential pace of technological change. Kurzweil, 62, says that will help speed the rate of change in medicine by a factor of 1 million over 20 years.

• He foresees immortality as a possibility and changed to a low-carb diet to combat his Type II diabetes. He consumes 250 supplements daily and washes them down with 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea.

• Manufacturing physical products at the molecular level will be a reality by 2020.

• Solar power will soon be cheap enough to replace the need for fossil fuels in 15 years, if the world has the will to make the change.

• Eventually education will be downloadable to the brain, and teacher roles will shift to mentoring and guiding students.

• Thanks to speech recognition, the Internet and translation software, anyone in the world will be able to talk to anyone else in the world anytime as soon as next year. He demonstrated it in German at the conference.

A free-thinking author/inventor/computer engineer who created the first flat scan reader for the blind in 1979, Kurzweil parlayed his knowledge into a career as a futurist and early investor in such technologies as Facebook.

Kurzweil's reputation gained credibility after several of his 1980s forecasts panned out in the following decade. He correctly forecast that a computer would beat a chess champion (he missed by a year), the rise of the Internet and how the Soviet Union would be done in by open communications driven by technology. There are still plenty of skeptics, however.

Much of his work parallels larger implications of the same miniaturization and speed of technological change that shrank his original flat reader from the size of a kitchen table to something that fits in your hand. The reader allowed the blind to scan a book or other reading material and then have it read back to them.

If you have yet to hear of Kurzweil, hang on. There's a movie called Transcendent Mind coming out this summer inspired by his life. His own quirky documentary, The Singularity is Near, is making the film festival rounds. It features Kurzweil interviewing other futurists like Alvin Toffler, then preparing an avatar named Ramona for a career in show biz.

Many of Kurzweil's other predictions portend a far different marketplace for retailers to sell their products. He thinks today's torrid pace of technological change is speeding up "exponentially," so fast that advances that once took a century now will take a decade.

For instance, by 2025 he says medical advances and the first wave of baby boomers hitting their upper 70s will add one year every year to the average life expectancy.

"So if you can hang in there another 15 years, you may get an extra year every year," he mused.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Advertisers need to guess right

The experts gathered at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa for the Global Retail Marketing Association conference seemed to agree: The computer and TV are giving way to ubiquitous wireless online commerce.

"It's driven by the spread of the smart phone," said Rob Conway, chief executive of the GSMA, a London trade group trying to coordinate uniform wireless standards in 219 countries. "In three years there will be as many cell phones as people in the world, and the penetration of wireless devices that connect to the Internet will surpass the number of (personal computers)."

Part of the challenge for wireless companies will be fighting to increase the $1 billion spent on advertising on mobile platforms like cell phones. They want to tap into the $460 billion now spent globally on advertising, including the $65 billion spent online.

Top retail executives who must map their business plans five years in the future have long had an affinity for futurists even if the predictions miss as often as they hit.

"You need a long-term view of where things are going to track adoption that actually happens," said Ed Carroll, a former Bon-Ton department store executive who chairs the marketing association. "But clearly any retailer without a mobile strategy for this holiday season or an augmented reality one for next year is in trouble."

The tradeoff confronting all marketing execs is how much cash to pour into less-than-certain-social media experiments when mainstream media like print and TV still deliver the overwhelming bulk of their shopping crowds.

"The trick is be aware of all these trends, but adopt what can help improve sales right now," said Mike McDonald, chief executive of DSW/Designer Shoe Warehouse, the nation's fourth-biggest shoe retailer that recently relied on mainstream advertising and improved inventory controls to reverse nine quarters of declining sales.

Facebook, for instance, drew 400 million members in four years, will now sell advertising and soon will be used to sell products direct by 1-800-Flowers, JanSport and NineWest. But many retailers are not impressed. They still regard social media as just one more advertising channel to figure out.

"We do a lot with social media for brand positioning, not economic return on investment," said Lee Applebaum, chief marketing officer of RadioShack.

Future of retail may include cell phones among blood cells 04/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 23, 2010 11:22pm]
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