Is Whole Foods Launching Ultra-Smart Carts? Not Exactly

Written by Evan Schuman
February 29th, 2012

A shopping cart prototype—which follows customers around the store, scans products and flags shopping list discrepancies, completes payment in-aisle, includes voice-recognition and, heaven help us, talks—is being touted by Microsoft as under development for the Whole Foods chain. Whole Foods, however, has a very different take.

The Jetsons-friendly cart was demoed Monday (Feb. 27) at a Microsoft event called TechForum, where various cutting-edge projects were showcased. The Microsoft hook is that the RFID-equipped cart is using Microsoft’s Kinect sensor for Windows. The cart is actually using a Samsung Windows 8 tablet along with a UPC scanner, according to Will Hurley, general manager at Chaotic Moon Labs, the Texas vendor that created the system.

The cart certainly has some interesting potential—and drawbacks—but one key player that is not buying into the short-term need for the cart is Whole Foods, despite the Whole Foods logo having been prominently displayed on the cart at the Microsoft demo.

“It’s an experiment at this point. It’s not even quite a pilot even, as it’s not something we’re currently planning to try out in stores,” said Whole Foods spokesperson Libba Letton.

“The tech development company [Chaotic Moon Labs] approached us about it and we offered them a shopping cart to try the software with,” Letton said, adding that “this is the kind of innovation we always keep our eye on.”

The testing began in mid-February at an Austin Whole Foods store where shoppers have tried it out, said Phil Wheat, manager at Chaotic Moon Labs.

The Microsoft demo, which happened to be captured (in part) by GeekWire, shows that the cart is supposed to follow customers around the store.

It’s not clear what practical advantages that offers customers, and the image of many of these carts trying to follow many customers in narrow shopping aisles has a frightening bumper-car feel to it. As if to emphasize this point, the video of the demo shows that the cart didn’t even move as it was supposed to on an empty stage.

Wheat said the demo was performed by a Microsoft employee and that the need for a different cart forced last-minute recalibrations, which caused the maneuvering glitch.

From a practical standpoint, calculating how to make the cart move precisely in close spaces is complex and difficult, and potentially needless. But because Chaotic Moon is doing this—at this point—purely as a research project, the team wanted to push the envelope on what could be done.

This experimental mode has made the cart impractical for retail for many reasons. For example, the carts have a bit of a Dracula quality to them, in that they can die when exposed to direct sunlight. That means no parking lots, avoiding large windows and avoiding large skylights.


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