Walmart’s Augmented Reality App is Perfectly Low-Key

Finally, an example of AR that’s all sustenance, no fluff

Photo: Walmart

Aside from a couple of cool apps — IKEA Place comes to mind — and a handful of interesting games, examples of Augmented Reality have been a little underwhelming, with many of the apps released to date becoming pointless after the initial “whoa, how cool is this?!” reaction wears off.

In fairness, this comes with the territory when new technology and capabilities are being adopted. Many companies are making apps to showcase what can be done, not necessarily what should be done.

The problem is that most examples are all fluff, no sustenance.

Step forward Me@Walmart

On June 3rd, Walmart announced its All-in-One associate app, called Me@Walmart. It launches at 3,500 stores this week and will roll out to other Walmart locations throughout the year. According to the press release, the app “provides an exclusive destination” that includes new features designed to “simplify daily tasks, serve our customers and plan for life outside of work.” Walmart also claims the concept is an industry-first.

The company had previously tested some of these features on shared employee devices and was so impressed with the results that it’s going all-in, promising to offer more than 740,000 associates a new Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro smartphone to use free of charge with the app pre-loaded. The staff will be entitled to use the phone outside of work, and Walmart has promised users will maintain their freedoms — the company will not be snooping on their data or tracking employees to make sure they’re at home when they call in sick.

Me@Walmart is designed by Walmart’s in-house team and incorporates various technologies, including machine learning and augmented reality, to tackle complex problems employees face during work. Some of the app’s features include;

  • shift scheduling and pay monitoring
  • clocking in and out via the tap of a button
  • instant employee communication, similar to using walkie-talkies, via a ‘push to talk’ function
  • a voice-activated personal assistant called Ask Sam, who can answer questions quickly about the location of merchandise, business metrics, and more.

But where the app gets super clever is its use of augmented reality to help solve a huge obstacle — keeping the shelves stocked.

Augmented stock

Some Walmart stores have over 120,000 items on the shelves, and keeping them stocked as fast as customers clear them is one of the company’s biggest challenges. When a shelf is emptied, most Walmart stores will likely have the item stocked in the back room, but the speed at which staff can locate the item can take over two and half minutes on average and it still needs to be moved to the storefront from there.

Thanks to the Augmented Reality feature, Walmart has shortened the time-to-locate to an average of just 42 seconds. When employees are notified of stock shortages, they no longer have to go hunting through isles of similar boxes stacked floor to ceiling, trying to find the matching product number. (As a former stock boy, I can attest — you’re never able to find a package quickly). Now, employees can scan entire sections of stock and the app highlights which package they’re looking for with a handy green tick. The feature was successfully trialed last year, and will be added to the Me@Walmart app in the coming months.

Video: Walmart

The technology behind the process is surprisingly simple. The app is not doing anything complex like detecting box shapes or positioning, or learning the layout of individual stock rooms down to the last box; rather, it’s scanning a tag that Walmart is placing on all its boxes, similar to a QR code. The app can read dozens of these codes simultaneously, far faster than the human eye, helping staff quickly retrieve items. Before the doom-mongers cite this as another example of humans getting replaced by robots, remember you still need someone to move the item from stock to shelf. Walmart insists the intention is to improve inventory for customers and make employee’s work easier and more enjoyable, and not to begin slyly replacing its workers with autonomous beings.

The retail industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, and the various players need to innovate to keep ahead of each other. The Walmart app shows that innovating doesn’t have to mean overthinking or overdoing; sometimes, simple really is best.

Editor-in-Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Thoughts on business, ideas, writing & more

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