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Reopening Public Spaces with AI

Beabloo, Public spaces

As the world reopens, creating safe public spaces—from retail, to transportation, to leisure—is both a challenge and an opportunity. Digital signage technology can reassure customers that the environment is safe, but can it also deliver an advantage to businesses?

Kenton Williston, Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech, talks with Jaume Portell, CEO and Co-Founder of Beabloo, whose solutions combine digital signage, with analytics and AI. We’ll find out how Beabloo can help businesses and government organizations make public spaces not only safe, but inviting—while providing great return on investment.

Kenton Williston: Jaume, welcome to the show. The first thing I wanted to ask you is what exactly led you to start Beabloo in 2008?

Jaume Portell: We started thinking that we could bring some of the intelligence that was deployed in the e-commerce sites—where e-commerce was controlling the message and measuring the impact of every single step in the process—to brick-and-mortar stores. And the challenge was very interesting, because we had to bring the analytics first, and then also control the digital-message delivery in those physical locations.

We use computer vision and other sensing technologies to understand how customers move, what they want, what they’re touching. And then we adapt the communication—the value proposition of the store—using signage, using electronic shelf labels, and also sending hints to staff in the store about how to serve customers better.

Kenton Williston: The world was totally turned upside down last year with the pandemic. Since then there’s been a complete rethink about how public spaces—whether those are retail establishments, or airports, or whatever—need to run their operations.

And so all these technologies you’ve been talking about—in terms of being able to observe the behavior of people in public spaces and create intelligent analysis of that—has become valuable for completely new reasons. And I’m wondering what you see as some of the biggest challenges in public spaces as we move more towards reopening.

Jaume Portell: Well, first of all, we’ve been creating technology to improve the customer experience. That is what our technology does. It looks at what people need and reacts to it. In times of pandemic, you want to deliver messages to customers to help them understand that they are in a space that’s protected and clean, and where measures of protection are properly taken.

And that is what digital signage does in this context. We have analytics in that digital signage that senses how those messages are being understood by customers. So communicating the new rules of the game is extremely relevant. That means technology that senses risk, and communicates that risk to whoever can help to protect the staff, to protect the other users of that physical space.

And we do this with computer vision. We also add in some additional layers of artificial intelligence to clear noise from that data. We’ve seen that the hardware, in most cases that’s already there—lacked some additional intelligence for the situation where we’ve been. We created that intelligence; and that same hardware now helps you sell more, but at the same time also protects your staff and your customers.

Enhancing the Customer Experience

Kenton Williston: The implications around computer vision and AI—there are a lot of sensitivities around that. So, here in the U.S., for example, there’s been a lot of backlash—a lot of concern around how these technologies might be used, especially when it comes to sensitive things, like racial profiling.

But I know that you’ve done some really great case studies in airports that showcased the power of these technologies, and proved that people are really having a positive reaction to this technology. So can you walk me through what you did and the results you saw?

Jaume Portell: We deployed our intelligent digital signage network with audience analytics. So we sensed who looked at the content. And when we say “who,” we mean the computer-vision systems see faces and take note of for example, “this looks like the face of a man of this age.” There’s no ID; there’s no way we can re-create an ID from that. If the system sees the same face again 20 seconds later, it thinks it’s another face—a different face, probably same age, same gender, but it has no clue that that is the same person. So no data-privacy issues at all.

The system doesn’t record images; the system has been trained to count faces. It’s very specialized to measure certain demographic characteristics, but they are 100% anonymous.

That doesn’t mean that the system cannot understand things that can be of certain risk. It can detect two bodies that are too close to each other, or it can detect someone not wearing a mask, and it can automatically trigger a message saying, “Please remember that you have to wear a mask to be in this physical space.”

So that is how the artificial intelligence that we are deploying in airports is enhancing and improving that customer experience: it’s controlling the messaging, and adapting it to the situation. Right now, if you walk into these spaces and I tell you how safe the space is, you will feel confident in walking in. You will walk in way happier about that customer experience, and your experience with that space will be more positive, and you will be more likely to purchase something from that location.

Kenton Williston: But then there is the world more broadly of retail, and similar customer-facing establishments as transportation—like banks and food service establishments. What do you see as some of the big challenges there, and how are you addressing those?

Jaume Portell: So retail banking is in serious transformation all over the world. They’re trying to help us all use the banking systems online, and they also need to keep a certain number of branches open for higher-level, face-to-face services. Their goal is to improve the customer experience in those locations, and help us in the journey of financing our dreams while we’re in those locations. And that requires communication, and it requires customer experience. If our visit to the bank is a pain, then we don’t want to come back, and we might end up doing that financing by ourselves somewhere else.

And that is a lot about sensing, and it’s also about understanding what happened when you implemented certain campaigns. So banking needs sensing, needs digital transformation of the stores with computer vision—with those screens that explain the value proposition of the bank. And all this is perfectly possible with technologies like the one Beabloo is using, and it enhances that customer experience a great deal.

Adding a Layer of Intelligence

Kenton Williston: One last area that I want to touch on is, I think, probably the most challenging, if I’m thinking from a health and safety perspective. And that is in the space of hospitality and event venues and entertainment complexes—where the whole point of these facilities is to get people together and have them stay together for some period of time. So what do you see as being some of the most important trends in those sorts of applications?

Jaume Portell: Occupation is extremely relevant. Understanding when these spaces are full of people or not, is critical to cleaning them when they are not, and getting them ready for the next set of users. There’s a table—you want to know if it’s clean. Having computer-vision systems observing the space to make sure that after someone uses it someone went from the staff to clean it up, will give you the confidence that that place is okay.

Kenton Williston: The other big question I have is the cost question. So, it’s obvious to me how beneficial these technologies are. But I think there’s always a question of how affordable they are—especially given how tight budgets have been for a lot of the industries we’ve been talking about.

Jaume Portell: It is surprisingly affordable. Because how many retail spaces do you know that have security cameras, CCTV cameras? How many of them have digital screens? Many, right? The issue is not the hardware—it’s the usage of the value that that hardware is generating to actually make the places smarter.

And that means connecting those streams from the cameras to a computer—an Intel® computer that can get the information out of those streams, make sense out of it, and react in real time using the digital signage that already was available in the front door of the location. So what we’re talking about here is injecting intelligence into the hardware that is already in those physical spaces.

We are talking about software deployment. It’s easy, it doesn’t require much installation, and it’s creating value by itself immediately. And, actually, it usually pays off the hardware as well.

You can use all of it to create more value with Beabloo Active Customer Intelligence Suite, which will sense with the cameras, sense with the Wi-Fi access points, and understand what’s going on. Understand what’s working, what’s not working in your digital campaigns, and improve the selection of them based on the hour of the day, based on the day of the week, to increase your customer service perception and the conversion to sales.

Sharing the Intelligence

Kenton Williston: I want to think a little bit about where we’re going next, and what organizations that manage all these different kinds of public spaces should be thinking about as we move forward into the next, post-pandemic era.

Jaume Portell: The first thing is, when you start thinking about improving customer experience, or taking care of your customers in a situation like the one we are in right now, you are sensing customers and giving them what they want as soon as possible. This is exactly what you want to do when the pandemic is over.

Today, this morning, was a sunny day in Barcelona. A sunny day has a completely different behavior pattern in the retail environment than a rainy day. Today is Thursday; the purchase pattern of customers in a particular store is different than it will be tomorrow and it’s the day before the weekend. So these things are seen, perceived, and understood by machine learning algorithms that can explain it to the staff in the retail store. And it can tell them, “Look, today’s Friday, and this weekend there’s going to be good weather. So most of our customers will buy barbecue stuff from the supermarket.”

The intelligence is there also to empower the staff to provide a better customer experience. And that is the next big thing—sharing that intelligence with everyone. Sharing that intelligence with the customer, sharing that intelligence with the staff. This is using the intelligence of the store to help the staff to do their work better.

So we think that the next big wave is making sure that the intelligence is collected from the hardware as much as possible, so that everything that we see can improve that customer experience. It is the tech that is analyzed; and then transforming that into action—action to the customers, and action to the managers of the stores.

Kenton Williston: So with that, I’d just like to say, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jaume Portell: Thank you. Thank you very much for your time.

Related Content

To learn more about creating safe public spaces, listen to our podcast on Reopening Public Spaces with AI.

About the Author

Kenton Williston is the Editor-in-Chief of insight.tech and served as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

Profile Photo of Kenton Williston