It’s not always easy to innovate in the course of having to conduct business every day.
Brands and agencies have been turning to internal innovation labs, primarily to give their organizations the mechanism and time to explore new marketing and commerce technologies and capabilities.
Retailers including Walmart, Staples and CVS have their own internal labs and agency holding companies like IPG have innovation labs where the future is explored and tested.
One agency innovation lab took a rather novel approach at its inception, focusing on a mix of internal and external projects.
That’s the Project Beacon lab at Hill Holliday’s headquarters in Boston.
I met up with Jamie Scheu, VP and Director of Experience Design, and Steve Callan, VP and Director of Technology yesterday for a lab tour and rundown on what the group has been up to lately.
“We started Project Beacon a couple of years ago and, like a lot of innovation labs, it had a charter of allowing us to explore emerging technologies that hadn’t yet hit the mainstream but that we knew were going to have a big impact on our clients’ customers,” said Scheu.
“We gave ourselves the charter of completing 12 projects in 12 months,” he said. “It was pretty ambitious, but we needed something to get this thing up and running. A number of those were internal, solutions for problems that we had, and others were for clients.”
For example, as in companies that use printers frequently, a printer would always seem to fail when needed most. The innovation group created Glitch, which automatically sent a text to the appropriate helpdesk technician dramatically increasing printer up time.
From a mobile commerce standpoint, Project Beacon created a wall-size screen using iBeacons to quickly identify an approaching employee. When the employee gets to the screen, a personal status board appears, displaying such information as steps taken, courtesy of FitBit, weather, relevant news headlines and when the next train is arriving.
The screen technology can be adapted to retail to display relevant information based on the shopper standing in front of it.
Project Beacon tapped into beacons for other projects, such as the deployment of some two dozen beacons in the Public Gardens in Boston, allowing visitors to have an interactive audio tour with a different part played based on where the visitor is standing.
The key is that each experiment and deployment provides more knowledge for the next one.
Future iBeacon deployments planned include the internal and automatic bookings of the many conference rooms in the building with beacon-triggered information to identify if anyone is in a particular conference room at any given moment.
One of the highly publicized client projects was created in partnership with IdeaPaint, which makes paint that transforms a wall into a whiteboard. Project Beacon created an app called Bounce, which allows smartphone capture of the ideas written and drawn on a wall.
The photos then can be automatically ‘cleaned’ by the app and shared with colleagues. The free app just became public.
Scheu and Callan showed me a wall painting created by a robot, virtual reality hardware they’re experiment with, the specially painted walls on which the staff draws and the iBeacon wall screen.
Now that the 12-project goal is complete, Scheu says the Beacon Project is focused on looking for market problems to solve through conversations with existing clients as well as with innovative startups in the area.
“There’s always more demand than supply for this type of thing,” said Scheu.
The obvious need for innovation in commerce is in the retail environment.
While many retailers have bene experimenting with beacons during the last year, the entire path to purchase has to be reinvented, thanks to the mobile influence all along the way.
Labs like those at Hill Holliday and IPG are primarily focused on enhancing the customer shopping experience.
The mobile customers are patiently waiting.