In-store retailers are losing cash to e-commerce. Enter Millie, a life-size digital sales assistant whose computer vision pedigree is beyond compare.
“You look like a rock star,” the sales assistant says, as you try on the sunglasses. You blush. Perhaps this is the right purchase after all.
The assistant has a name: Millie. But she’s not human. Millie is a robot, a digital avatar created by Toronto-Berlin startup Twenty Billion Neurons. She may just be the answer to in-store shopping’s slow slump.
“Millie is just like a game character, but with the difference that it can see you and respond,” CEO Roland Memisevic told the MIT Technology Review in December, when Millie took its public bow at a conference in Montreal. The software, which is pushing the boundaries of computer vision, feels like a novelty at first. “Then you start to feel a connection to her,” Memisevic adds.
TwentyBN, as the company often calls itself, has unsurprisingly found plenty of VC admirers since Memisevic founded it in 2016. Groups including MVF Partners and M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, have chosen to inject cash into the project, which is an extension of Memisevic’s work at the University of Montreal’s MILA machine learning institute.
They are investing not in the future but the present. Forty-one of the world’s top hundred universities, and two Forbes Global 2000 top 50 companies use TwentyBN’s technology for research into the next generation of interactive software applications.
Avatars like Millie are just beginning to enter stores, and they’re having mixed results. Shoppers are generally open to the technology, but are oftentimes put off by a limited range of interactions, being watched constantly, and the general unease of falling into robotics’ so-called ‘uncanny valley’ – the unease humans feel when interacting with a relatively lifelike humanoid.
The pain point, however, isn’t just huge but imminent. Real-world stores are hemorrhaging customers to e-commerce. Over half of the UK’s consumers prefer to shop online. In the US in 2013, just six per cent of all sales occurred online. By 2021 that figure will climb to almost 14%.
Many companies may choose to create their own digital assistants, a la Alexa: TwentyBN has built those too. But for a deeper, more personal shopping experience that may get people out of their homes and onto Main Street, something else is required.
Millie may just be the answer. She comes in a life-size kiosk to be placed in any indoor or outdoor location. She may make some current users uncomfortable, in a time when robots are still often viewed as the preserve of science fiction. But when she tells you how good those sunglasses look, it’s hard not to believe you are seeing and hearing the future of retail.