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AI

Nvidia advances digital twins for retail, rail and telco

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The concept of digital twins is all about modeling the physical world in the metaverse, enabling humans as well as AI to make better decisions.

Building digital twins requires both hardware and software.  At the Nvidia GTC conference today, the company announced the next generation OVX computing systems to help power metaverse applications, including Nvidia’s Omniverse. The new OVX systems are powered by eight Nvidia L40 GPUs and integrate the ConnectX-7 SmartNIC for high-speed networking and storage.

In a press briefing, Richard Kerris, vice president of Omniverse at Nvidia, said that the new OVX systems have been designed for building complex industrial digital twins.

“The new OVX systems are designed to build virtual worlds using leading 3D software applications from our many software partners to be able to operate immersive digital twin simulations in Nvidia Omniverse enterprise, which is a scalable end-to-end platform enabling enterprises to build and operate metaverse applications,” Kerris said.

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Digital twins come to telco

“Omniverse extends and enhances existing workflows across industries, bringing AI superpowers to multi-trillion dollar industries across telecommunications, transportation, retail energy, media and entertainment and more,” Kerris said.

Among the industries that are embracing the digital twin concept is telecommunications. At GTC, Nvidia announced that Heavy AI is using Nvidia’s Omniverse digital twin technology to help telcos optimize 5G cellular networks. Kerris said that Heavy AI made use of digital twins to help Charter Communications with its network deployment.

“Heavy AI is an AI data analytics company that built an AI accelerated application framework on Omniverse, which enables telcos to develop physically accurate interactive digital twins to plan, build, and operate for and 5g networks at nationwide scale,” Kerris said.

Digital twins in all the aisles at home improvement retailer Lowe’s

Nvidia is also using GTC as a venue to highlight digital twin adoption by Lowe’s, which is one of the world’s largest home improvement retailers with over 2000 stores and over 300,000 retail associates. 

“Lowe’s is now using Omniverse as their platform to design, build and operate digital twins of their stores to optimize operations and enhance the shopping experience,” Kerris said.

Lowe’s store associates can now use augmented reality headsets to see what’s on the shelves and the current status of inventory levels. The digital twin also helps with store planning to make sure it’s as easy as possible for consumers to get what they need.

Riding the digital twin rails with Deutsche Bahn

Another industry use case for digital twins that Nvidia is talking about at GTC is in transportation with Deutsche Bahn.

Kerris said that Deutsche Bahn is the second-largest transport company in the world and the National Railway of Germany. Deutsche Bahn is using Omniverse to build and operate digital twins of over 5700 stations and over 33,000 kilometers of track. Omniverse is also being used for capacity optimization, as they’re using the digital twin to train and validate AI models that can continuously monitor the railways and trains to recognize hazards and situations that could affect network operations. 

“Deutsche Bahn expects to increase capacity and efficiency of the railway and reduce its carbon footprint without building any new tracks,” Kerris said.

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AI

Radius AI brings edge AI to retail, wins Innovation Award

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At VentureBeat’s fourth annual AI Innovation Awards given out in July at Transform, Radius AI, based in Tempe, Arizona, won the Edge AI award for its artificial intelligence (AI) computer vision technology that equips retailers with real-time insights on queue analytics, customer counts, store layout, parking lot analytics, customer journey and employee metrics. 

According to nominating committee member Andrea Huels, head of AI, North America at Lenovo, Radius AI’s computer vision solution helps retailers, particularly convenience stores, take advantage of missed opportunities, such as knowing if someone left the store without purchasing. or if the store’s product placement is ideal. The goal is to provide insights to help retailers create more sales and satisfied customers. 

“The focus of their human-centric AI is to nudge staff in real-time so they can make improvements,” said Huels.

Radius AI is currently doing a 1,000-location deployment for an enterprise client, which Radius claims to be the largest computer vision project in the convenience store sector. 

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Collaborating on edge AI

Back in 2017, Radius AI founders Abhinav Chowdary and Jeff Cox became friends while working together at Wells Fargo in Arizona, but the two had long spoken about collaborating on a startup, particularly in computer vision. 

“At the time, retailers were not thinking about the edge,” Radius AI cofounder Susan Sly told VentureBeat. “Many were contemplating how to use AI for online engagement, but not so much in terms of how it could benefit the customer experience in brick-and-mortar stores.” But Chowdary and Cox realized that convenience stores, with their already-existing on-premises security cameras, were a highly-successful segment that was underserved by AI-driven computer vision technology. 

Current Radius AI CEO and cofounder, Aykut Dengi, was an engineering professor at Arizona State University when he met Chowdary and Cox in 2018. Excited by the Radius AI technology, he took a sabbatical from teaching and offered his services for free. Finally, Sly was brought in as a fourth cofounder – after two decades building large sales teams as an entrepreneur, she was serving on a Phoenix advisory board for startups and looking for her next challenge. 

“Candidly, less than 2% of tech companies in the U.S. have at least one female founder,” she said. “So the opportunity to partner with a team of people who value inclusion and results was an easy ‘yes.’” In addition, Sly said she could easily see how the Radius AI technology could radically shift the brick-and-mortar landscape. 

“Although I hadn’t written a line of code since 1992, I was eager to jump in,” she said. “Even in the 1990s, when I was working on an early facial recognition project, I could see where this technology would eventually take us.” 

Convenience stores were an untapped opportunity

Over 29% of Americans go to a convenience store every day, Sly claimed, but as a result of the pandemic and other macroeconomic factors, there has been a shortfall of retail workers – which has led to challenges in meeting customer service expectations. That has meant an untapped opportunity for growth, she explained.  

“One of the things that we care about in the store is how we can use AI — and specifically computer vision — to increase parking lot-to-store conversion,” Sly said. “Because once we can get people in the store, then they’re more likely to buy something.”

Each convenience store has its own Radius AI edge device, which, combined with the existing security cameras, allows for fast and secure data visualization. The company’s intelligence solution offers insights from the time customers enter a store, including customer counts, paying vs. non-paying customers, heat maps and a full customer journey. 

Sly noted that a key differentiator for Radius is its relationships with partners that do hardware integration. That means the company can tackle the installation, the edge device and the GPUs, as well as services.

Radius AI has built out its own custom models. While there are lots of different labeled training datasets in computer vision for things like image recognition, there isn’t readily-available training data to recognize human intent. 

“We have developed fundamental models that capture human motion and we interpret those actions according to the context,” Dengi said. In retail, he noted, that context is critical. For example, when COVID-19 restrictions were in place, many retailers implemented social distancing rules. While that made it more difficult for some computer vision models to properly identify things such as how busy a store was, Radius AI’s edge system was able to adapt and maintain accuracy. 

Radius AI’s computer vision future

Sly said that Radius AI is currently focused on three things: Trust, ease and “wow.” 

“Our goal is to be the most trusted computer vision company in the world,” she said. “We understand that it is a bold statement, but we want the adoption of our product to be easy and we work with strategic partners to figure out ways to deploy computer vision efficiently – our record for getting a location up and running is one hour and we want to beat that.” 

Lastly, she said, the company wants to “wow” end users. “Our vanguard opinion is that we believe that humans and AI are better together,” she said. “Five years from now, we will be releasing products that help humans be superheroes.”

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AI

Microsoft launches cloud-powered marketing, supply chain, and retail solutions

Beyond updates across Azure, this week at its Ignite 2021 conference, Microsoft has announced additions to its Dynamics 365 business app and industry portfolio, including Microsoft Customer Experience Platform, a marketing solution that is aimed at helping customers personalize, automate, and orchestrate customer journeys. Another — Microsoft Connected Spaces — is designed to let organizations leverage observational data to produce predictive insights, while Supply Chain Insights aims to proactively mitigate supply chain issues.

“[W]e are announcing innovation across the Microsoft Cloud that will allow every organization to build a hyperconnected business, providing the agility and flexibility for organizations and employees to thrive now and into the future,” Microsoft’s corporate VP of industry, apps, and data marketing Alysa Taylor said in a blog post. “In order to be successful given these trends, every organization must move beyond ‘business as usual’ and toward a new model of hyperconnected business.”

Microsoft Customer Experience

Microsoft pitches its Customer Experience Platform as a service to “deliver personalized and connected experiences from awareness to purchase.” Leveraging assets from the existing Microsoft Customer Insights and Dynamics 365 Marketing products, the goal is to understand and predict intent to deliver the right content on the right channel and at the right moment, the company says.

To the company’s point, Epsilon found that 80% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that provides personalized experiences — marketing or otherwise. Moreover, according to a Smart Insights survey, 63% of consumers will stop buying from brands that use poor personalization tactics.

Customer Experience Platform’s Consent-enabled Consumer Data Platform (CDP) feature, currently in preview, enables chief data officers to use consent data to build customer profiles, manage known and pseudonymous aliases, ensure consumer data practices are compliant and protect the data with privacy and security controls. The complementary business-to-business CDP combines customer data from all sources — including customer relationship management software, email, websites, point-of-sales, partner systems, and social networks — and performs identity resolution at the contract and account level to generate profiles for people and companies. The AI-suggested content creation and delivery tool automatically generates a set of “content snippers” to serve as inspiration for customer emails.

Taylor says that customers including Home Depot, Chipotle, and agency partners like VMLY&R and Kin+Carta are already using Customer Experience Platform in their organizations. “Many [businesses] struggle to manage, organize, and gain insight from the vast quantity of data available to them, and for marketers that challenge is even more acute,” she added. “[C]ustomer data is the key to personalized, relevant, timely customer experiences.”

Connected Spaces

Another new service joining Dynamics 365, Connected Spaces, lets organizations “gain a new perspective” in the way people move and interact in nearly any space, Microsoft claims. With it, companies can monitor safety in high-risk areas and observe queue management, ranging in environments from retail stores to factory floors.

“With Connected Spaces … organization[s] can harness observational data with ease, [using] AI-powered models to unlock insights about [their] environment and respond in real-time to trends and patterns,” Taylor added.

At a high level, Connected Spaces provides analytics and trend information about people, places, and more. For example, in a store, Connected Spaces can monitor foot traffic patterns, cashier queue lengths, dwell times, and product display engagement. Microsoft says that Mattress Firm has piloted the technology to measure the effectiveness of its in-store promotions.

While the purported goal of products like Connected Spaces includes health, safety, and analytics, the technology could be co-opted for other, less humanitarian intents. Many privacy experts worry that they’ll normalize greater levels of surveillance, capturing data about workers’ movements and allowing managers to chastise employees in the name of productivity.

Microsoft did not detail the steps it’s taken to prevent the potential misuse of Connected Spaces. Once the service comes to preview, further details regarding this are likely to be disclosed.

Supply Chain Insights

The launch of the aforementioned Supply Chain Insights (in preview) comes as companies face historic supply challenges. According to one source, only 6% report full visibility on their supply chain. And 38.8% of U.S.-based small businesses experienced supply chain delays due to the pandemic.

“Customers like Daimler Trucks North America can gain new visibility into their supply chains across multiple tiers of suppliers. They can get data in near real-time, allowing them to assess risks and mitigate problems before a massive disruption occurs,” Taylor continued. “Supply Chain Insights also enables customers to enrich their own supply chain data with external signals like global weather data to predict its impact on shipments, putting increased intelligence and predictive power at their fingertips.”

With Supply Chain Insights, companies can reconcile data from third-party data providers, logistics partners, customers, and multi-tier suppliers and create a “digital twin” simulation of the supply chain — generating insights powered by AI. Digital twin approaches to simulation have gained currency in many domains, for instance helping SenSat clients in construction, mining, energy, and other industries create models of locations for projects they’re working on.

Supply Chain Insights also enriches signals with external constraints like environmental disasters or geopolitical events that could affect the supply chain. Beyond this, the service can automate and execute actions through existing enterprise resource planning and supply chain execution systems, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft Cloud

Manufacturing

Building on the release of Supply Chain Insights, Microsoft is introducing Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing, the newest entry in the company’s Industry Cloud lineup. Announced in February and now available in preview, Cloud for Manufacturing brings together new and existing capabilities across the Microsoft Cloud portfolio in addition to partner solutions to connect people, assets, workflows, and business processes.

According to a 2020 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, companies in manufacturing expect efficiency gains over the next five years attributable to digital transformations. McKinsey’s research with the World Economic Forum puts the value creation potential of manufacturers implementing “Industry 4.0” — the automation of traditional industrial practices — at $3.7 trillion in 2025.

“Cloud for Manufacturing … connects experiences across the end-to-end product and service lifecycle and lighting up the entire Microsoft Cloud with capabilities specifically tailored to manufacturing,” Taylor said. “Customers including Johnson & Johnson are working with Microsoft on their digital manufacturing transformation with tools like Azure, AI, and Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing capabilities.”

Nonprofit, Sustainability, Financial Services, and Healthcare

Microsoft Cloud for Nonprofit, a collection of tools, apps, cloud services, and infrastructure geared toward nonprofit scenarios, is now generally available following a preview earlier this year. Built for fundraisers, volunteer managers, and program managers, and other roles unique to the nonprofit segment, it’s designed to help address challenges ranging from constituent and supporter engagement to program design and delivery.

The closely related Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, previously in private preview and now in public preview, aims to bring greater transparency and data sharing, agreement on common taxonomy and methods of measurement, and standard practices for tracking and reporting data on carbon emissions. The solution uses a common format to connect data from various sources and get a company’s carbon footprint as well as provide insights to understand data, measure progress, meet regulatory and reporting requirements, and identify actions needed to reduce the footprint.

Meanwhile, Microsoft announced that Microsoft Cloud for Financial Services — its collection of solutions for the financial industry — is generally available, with new capabilities across Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, and Power Platform to help enable retail banks to “enhance customer and employee experiences.” Alongside this, Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare — which launched last year — has received several updates, including:

  • An enhanced patient view that allows providers to associate one patient record with other patient records (in preview)
  • A new waiting room for Microsoft Teams (in preview).
  • Integration of Microsoft Forms with Microsoft Bookings (in preview)
  • A scheduled queue for virtual visits in Microsoft Bookings (in preview)
  • Virtual Visits Manager, a standalone Teams app to facilitate reporting about virtual consults (in preview)

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AI

Bluecore raises $125M to drive retail customer retention with big data

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Bluecore, a marketing technology company that helps some of world’s biggest retailers “transform casual shoppers into lifetime customers,” has raised $125 million in a series E round of funding at a $1 billion valuation.

Founded in 2013, Bluecore helps direct-to-consumer (D2C) retailers match first-party shopper data with product interactions, enabling them to design personalized mass-marketing communications through email, ecommerce platforms, and other digital ad channels. The New York-based company works with hundreds of enterprise-grade retailers, including Gap, Nike, Teleflora, Tommy Hilfiger, and CVS Pharmacy.

Retention

The problem Bluecore is setting out to solve is the age-old conundrum of how companies and brands can improve their repeat customer metrics.

“There are a number of challenges for retail, but if you peel back the layers and look at the core, the primary issue is that 80% of customers only ever buy from a retailer once,” Bluecore CEO Fayez Mohamood told VentureBeat. “This is particularly an issue for enterprise retailers, because the larger a retailer gets, the larger the revenue potential that lies in retention is.”

While retailers of all sizes naturally want loyal customers, Mohamood argues that the stakes are higher for larger ones — such as Nike, Gap, Foot Locker, Lululemon, and Jockey — that have withstood the test of time and evolved.

“If you look at brands that have endured, you’ll realize that they’re the ones that people keep buying from,” Mohamood said. “This isn’t random — they’ve made retention and shopper loyalty a key strategy for revenue growth.”

Data is the new oil

Technology plays a major role in helping companies not only “go digital,” but scale by leveraging vast swathes of data. Bluecore is all about driving revenue by growing “purchase frequency, cart size, and conversions through personalization,” according to Mohamood. This involves meshing real-time shopper data with product data in a single system.

Bluecore captures shopper activity, such as what they’re searching for, clicking on, adding to carts, abandoning, and so on, and combines this with in-store transactions and other data. This culminates in the amalgamation of disparate datasets into a single unified view spanning shopper identity and behavior and product catalog.

“Using this dataset, we can immediately automate actions across channels with the goal of continuously creating matches between each individual shopper and the products they’ll love,” Mahmood said.

Bluecore’s platform constitutes three main elements: Bluecore Communicate, which is concerned with automating personalized customer communications; Bluecore Advertise, which uses predictive modeling to target new and existing customer segments on paid media channels such as Facebook, Instagram, and Google Ads; and Bluecore Site, which uses predictive signals to deliver personalized marketing campaigns.

At the heart of these products is data, which has often been described as today’s most valuable resource — more so than oil — given the role it plays in driving all manner of business decisions.

“When traditional retailers go digital and digital brands scale, they have to focus as much on customer retention as acquisition,” Mohamood continued. “Fortunately, digital offers a data-rich environment for connecting shoppers to the next-best product that gets them to buy again and again.”

Above: Bluecore: Discount purchases over the past 12 months

Show me the money

Bluecore had previously raised around $113 million, and with another $125 million from investors including Georgian, FirstMark, Norwest, and Silver Lake Waterman, the company said it’s now well-financed to invest in further ecommerce product development and in AI and analytics.

More importantly, Bluecore is also better positioned to challenge legacy marketing clouds from the likes of Oracle, Adobe, and Salesforce with a more targeted offering built specifically for direct-to-consumer (D2C) retailers.

“We built our technology for the world of online shopping — and more specifically, for the unique use cases of retail, such as the need to create repeat purchases, preserve margins, and guide shoppers through product discovery,” Mohamood said.

Moreover, the global pandemic was a major driver of digital transformation, with countless traditional retailers forced into declaring bankruptcy or downsizing their brick-and-mortar presence — it’s all about e-commerce now.

“In 2020, the whole world moved to digital shopping,” Mohamood added. “This was a major wake-up call to those omnichannel, enterprise retailers who still did the majority of their sales in-store and didn’t consider their ecommerce sites primary revenue generators.”

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Game

Atari VCS console is finally coming to retail stores this month

Crowdfunded projects have come and gone and many that have lasted years never delivered. Given those factors, it’s almost a surprise that the Atari VCS hybrid PC console even launched at all. Yet here we are, almost four years after it first debuted as the AtariBox, the Atari VCS is finally launching in stores. Its commercial success, however, still hangs in the balance and in the hands of those who can figure out what the device is really for.

The Atari VCS was born from an age where every old console or arcade cabinet maker was coming out with revivals of their classic hardware, albeit in smaller forms. Atari, however, had a different vision for what would become the Atari 2600’s spiritual successor. Full-sized or perhaps even a little larger, the Atari VCS was made to be a general-purpose home entertainment and productivity system.

It may look like a classic Atari console but the Atari VCS is actually a PC at heart. Running on an AMD Ryzen chip with 8GB of RAM and 32GB of eMMC storage, the Atari VCS can even run Linux or Windows or even Steam OS. In fact, the custom OS that Atari uses even includes the Google Chrome web browser.

Of course, the main purpose of the Atari VCS is for gaming and it comes with support for all types of games. Each purchase comes with a copy of Atari VCS Vault which contains a hundred arcade and Atari 2600 games as well as Atari’s own Missile Command: Recharged. There’s also free access to Antstream Arcade, a game-streaming service dedicated to retro titles, and a library of indie games that include Boulder Dash Deluxe.

Atari clearly wants the Atari VCS to be a gaming console, a game development platform, an entertainment system, and a productivity machine in one but it remains to be seen if it will hit the mark on even one of those. The hybrid console goes on sale on June 15 from Best Buy, GameStop, Micro Center, and the official Atari VCS online store. The base unit costs $299.99 and the Wireless Classic Joystick and Wireless Modern Controller cost $59.99 each. While the console supports almost any PC controller, retailers also offer a bundle of those three pieces for #399.99.

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Tech News

Apple says its retail stores will keep their mask mandates for now

A number of big retailers, including Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Costco, have already announced that they will no longer require vaccinated customers to wear masks in their stores. The decision came, in some cases, within hours of the CDC’s latest mask guidance, but not all companies are ready to lift their mask requirements. Apple is officially counted among the latter group.

The CDC’s latest mask guidance has proven to be controversial, with some expressing worries that due to an inability to determine who has been vaccinated, the ‘honor system’ guidance will result in many unvaccinated individuals also ditching their masks. This would put store workers who haven’t yet been vaccinated at increased risk of exposure to the virus.

Apple has made the decision to keep the mask mandate for its retail stores in place for now, according to Bloomberg, noting that it will keep monitoring the safety measures. It’s unclear when the company will lift its mask mandate for vaccinated customers, but it is basing its decision on both employee and customer safety.

Companies face a difficult decision about whether they should remove their store mask mandates for vaccinated individuals who are ready to stop wearing their face masks or whether they should continue with the mandates to provide shoppers and workers with a sense of safety and protection from unvaccinated customers.

Many states that still had mask mandates removed them quickly following the CDC’s latest mask guidance, which allows fully vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks except in certain situations, including on public transportation, in medical facilities, and in homeless shelters. Other states are still evaluating their mask mandates and haven’t yet removed them.

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Tech News

Microsoft permanently closes all of its retail stores

Microsoft’s retail stores mimick the look and feel of Apple’s iconic sales fronts, from the glass walls to the wood tables to the very design of the Surface hardware on display. But as anyone who ever wandered through a mall can tell you, Microsoft’s stores lack one crucial aspect: customers. Crowds never flocked to Microsoft stores the way they do Apple stores, and on Friday, Microsoft announced that it’s closing all but four of its brick and mortar locations.

“As we look forward, we start a new chapter for Microsoft Store,” Microsoft Store corporate vice president Brad Porter wrote on LinkedIn. “As part of our business plan, we announced a strategic change in our retail operations, including closing Microsoft Store physical locations. Our retail team members will continue to serve customers working from Microsoft corporate facilities or remotely and we will continue to develop our diverse team in support of the overall company mission and objectives.”

Flagship Microsoft Stores in London, New York City, Sydney and Redmond will remain open, but as “reimagine[d] new spaces,” Porter says. Microsoft’s press release says they’ll transform into “Microsoft Experience Centers.” The company also vows to beef up the digital version of the Microsoft Store with “virtual customer support from our trusted experts, online tutorial videos, virtual workshops with tips and much more,” including personal video sales support calls. Porter says that Microsoft’s digital Windows and Xbox storefronts already reach 1.2 billion customers each month.

According to its website, Microsoft operates more than 70 U.S. stores in 31 states. The company didn’t say whether layoffs will come as a result of the store closures. You have to imagine that shutting down the retail stores will cost many people their jobs, but Porter only stated that “our commitment to growing and developing careers from this diverse talent pool is stronger than ever.”

Microsoft Stores debuted in 2009, serving as a showcase for Surface, Xbox, and other PCs, as well as information centers for Windows itself. Microsoft shut the doors of all retail stores on March 16 in response to the ongoing pandemic. Unfortunately, they won’t be opening again.

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