Expert Advice Brings Student Innovation Closer to Reality

On a rainy Friday morning in the high-tech FELT lab, Matt Neill, 21, is nervous. One of the MicroTiles used in his retail digital display was giving him grief. Stubbornly, it refused to display its allotted digital content. Neill, a third-year student in University of Waterloo’s Rhetoric and Professional Writing program with a specialization in digital media studies, fiddles with wires, reboots the computer and finally resorts to unplugging it. Ten seconds later, he plugs it back in and all eight of the MicroTiles light up. Neill smiles; he is now prepared for when David Haynes walks through the door to see his Point of Experience Terminal (POET) for the first time.

Haynes is coming to the St. Jacob’s-based digital lab to give his expert opinion on the viability and commercialization possibilities of Neill’s interactive digital retail display. Neill is excited about this meeting with Haynes, whom he calls “the oracle of digital signage.” Arranged by Diane Williamson, a Research Entrepreneurs Accelerating Prosperity (REAP) executive, Haynes’s input will help guide the future direction of Neill’s concept, and perhaps his career.

Haynes, a digital signage display expert based in Burlington, Ontario, knows his stuff. He consults and writes about the fast growing, technology-driven world of interactive digital signage and displays and while it’s his first visit to the FELT lab, he knows the REAP team and is happy to offer his opinion on POET.

RFID Triggers the Information Flow

Neill’s idea is to combine readily available RFID tags, a computer database and industry-standard digital display panels to show consumers the full story on a product. The theory being the more information the consumer can acquire in the store, the easier it will be for the consumer to make a decision, and establish a coveted “positive relationship” with the brand. POET is the helpful, interactive, non-intrusive source of information in the buyer’s journey.

For the demonstration, Neill has set up his “donut” (the MicroTiles are stacked in a square, with a hole in the middle where the customer places the product and the computer reads the RFID tag) as if it were in the Vintages section of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). When he places a bottle of wine into the “hole,” the computer reads the RFID tag, immediately causing the surrounding screens to fill with pertinent information about that bottle of wine – from where it comes from to what foods match it, price, label information as well as published wine reviews and other similar wine picks. It’s like having a knowledgeable sommelier for every bottle offering helpful information. Neill explains the application grabs content from the retailer’s database and displays it to an inquisitive customer.

Neill says this type of retail interactive digital display can be used for virtually any product – from watches and electronics to sporting goods or power tools. He theorizes that stand-ins such as miniature toy cars or lawnmowers representing the real thing on the showroom floor can be used in this system.

Advice: Be Middleware

Haynes is satisfied. Not because the technology is new, as everything Neill has assembled in the FELT lab is readily available to retailers, but because of how innovative Neill is with the existing technology. As Haynes points out, the logjam in digital signage is the retailer (and digital signage supplier) who are continually struggling for great content – finding it, creating it and using it in a way that’s both engaging and interactive. Neill’s system solves this vexing problem. The info is there when you need it.

Haynes appearance at the FELT lab to provide Neill with real world advice on commercialization is a key component in realizing REAP’s vision of helping entrepreneurs find new uses for existing technologies. Haynes knows all the major players in this industry and works both as a consultant to suppliers and clients. He advises Neill to redesign his demonstration to display a generic high-end wine store instead of specifically the LCBO. When pitching an industry, explains Haynes, you can’t create any objections; develop a generic high-end demo so the would-be customer can imagine her own logo and company graphics easily.

Neill is also advised not to get caught up in the hardware. “Be a middleware company,” says Haynes. Customers will choose their own hardware (displays) based on price and suitability, but supplying the database/RFID/display technology – not the actual displays – is where the opportunity lies.

Business Plan Next Step

This type of advice is golden. Neill knows his next step is to create a solid business plan. With REAP’s assistance, he will fine tune his offering and figure out how to get funding to turn this idea into a viable start up.

For University of Waterloo’s REAP team, Neill’s project is exactly what the organization set out to do. Students at REAP do not invent technology, they innovate existing technologies to create new business opportunities for themselves, and along the way, new markets for its technology partners. It’s a fast-track method of bringing innovations to market and bypassing many of the pitfalls inventors face when creating technology from scratch.

Neill says he’s willing to devote the next year to building POET into a real business, while taking part time courses to finish his degree. “I literally dream about how to make this work,” says Neill. “There’s lots of great help here at REAP, which I will need because I am not a business student, and my parents are supportive of me concentrating on this.” He’s very happy about Hayne’s expert advice and Hayne’s is equally happy to mentor an entrepreneur in the making. REAP’s Williamson is smiling. It’s all working out.