Industry News

Hilton Hints at Robot’s Future in Digital Signage

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Hilton Worldwide and IBM collaborate on a Watson-enabled robot concierge.

IBM and Hilton's Connie

Named "Connie" in honor of Conrad Hilton, IBM has developed a robot specifically for the hospitality market that uses knowledge from Watson and WayBlazer to answer guest’s questions about local attractions, dining recommendation, hotel features and amenities.

On display at CeBIT 2016 (as well as the recent ITB Berlin), the 2.5-foot-tall (.76m) robot uses Watson APIs that include Dialog, Speech to Text, Text to Speech, and Natural Language Classifier. It's able to greet guests on arrival and answer questions about amenities, services, and operations. It uses WayBlazer’s travel domain knowledge to be able to suggest local attractions off property.

The first hospitality robot of its kind to use IBM’s Watson, it offers applications for assisting hotel front desk staff, as well as playing a role in meetings and events. 

And Connie may be the first IBM in her category, but she is not alone. Business Intelligence estimates that the market for corporate and consumer robots will grow to $1.5 billion by 2019.

Scholars at Oxford have predicted the computerization of almost half of the jobs now performed by humans, as soon as the 2030s. In the next two years alone, global sales of service robots—like the dinosaur that checks in guests at the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, or the robots who deliver room service in a group of California hotels, or the tri-lingual robot that assists Costa Cruise Line passengers—are expected to exceed 35 million units, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Starwood’s Aloft brand debuted Botlr, a robotic bellhop in 2014. Last year in Japan, a new hotel opened that uses robots for nearly all of its hotel operations. This spring, humanoids (“Pepper”) are sailing in Europe on two of Carnival’s ships. And Toshiba is now showing off Chihira Junco, the world’s first tourist information android, at Tokyo Waterfront City.

Hotel guests also appear to be receptive to robots. A Travelzoo survey of 6000 travelers (in Asia, Europe, No. America, and So. America) shows nearly 80% of respondents expect robots to play a big part in their lives by 2020--and almost two-thirds of travelers say they would be comfortable with robots being used in the travel industry.

Here at DIGITAL SIGNAGE NEWS EMEA we believe this creates a new category in digtal signage, a category that integrators need to consider (and possibly embrace). Robots will increasing be used to deliver signage (as well as services).  They will be bought by your current customers-- they may replace or complement other solutions you are proposing.

There is an odd reaction in the travel industry where this concept of hospitality robots is treated with the attitude, “This is not something new.”

Of course, it’s not. But this is like saying “flying cars” are not new. We’ve dreamed of them (and even seen many prototypes) over the years. So when they finally land in our lives—will flying cars be “new?"

What’s new is the reality, not the concept. Robots are not coming; they are already here.

Go More About IBM and Connie

Watch Connie at Work

On the Wings of Drones, Stampede Comes to Europe

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Mark Wilkins

American distributor Stampede opens a UK office, headed by Stampede founder and CEO Mark Wilkins.

Before founding Stampede nearly 20 years ago, Wilkins served as the Managing Director of UK-based Maverick Presentation Products, Ltd. In 1997, Wilkins saw the opportunity to bring the Maverick business model to the United States and he formed Stampede, which is today the oldest and largest value-added distributor of pro AV solutions in No. America, serving customers throughout the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

“Thus, in a very literal way, this new expansion by Stampede marks my return home. I’m looking forward to making the third act of my career the biggest and best yet for our partners in the region.”

Stampede is highlighting growth opportunities available from the increased use of drone video systems (DVS) and other Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and has hosted the Drone Arena at InfoComm. It will continue to promote these opportunities when it hosts a Drone Arena at the ISE show.

Wilkins said: “The adoption rate of drone technology and the regulatory environment in the UK and western Europe is very different than in the United States. And, as a result, the emerging vertical market business opportunities are an order of magnitude greater here. Our pioneering leadership of this category, our established vendor relationships, and our strategic alliance with Unmanned Vehicle University combines to present us with an extraordinary opportunity to meet UK and European reseller and customer DVS needs better than any other distributor.”


Stampede president and COO Kevin Kelly added that while drones and DVS solutions are the driver of the expansion, the company’s goal is to replicate Stampede’s entire business culture and philosophy in the region.

“We intend to be for UK and western European resellers and customers what we are now for resellers and customers throughout the Americas — a single, one-stop source of smart, profitable high value added pro AV and IT integration solutions that exceed customer expectations in ways that generate long-term repeat business for our partners,” he said.

“We are open for business in Europe,” Kelly stressed, “and we are looking for experienced sales professionals who share our values to join our team and we are actively recruiting manufacturers in the region for our manufacturer portfolio. If you want to always stay ahead of the herd in offering the market fresh new thinking, new technologies, new revenue generating business opportunities, we want to meet with you.”

Well, that invite should cause a real “stampede.”

Go Stampede

Robot Signage?

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Chihira Junco

Chihira Junco, speaks 3 languages, begins work at a tourist information center opening at Aqua City Odaiba in Tokyo Waterfront City—and makes history.

She’s the world’s first tourist information android. But probably not the last. Robot signage is here and will develop into a special category of digital signage product.

Toshiba’s Chihira Junco looks like a human being, like an attractive young lady. She has smooth arm and hand movements, and-- with Toshiba’s unique speech synthesis technology--she can speak Japanese, English and Chinese.

When visitors use the trilingual terminal installed in the tourist information center to seek help, Chihira Junco provides sightseeing information, even gesturing as she speaks.

The nearby input terminal has an “airborne display” that incorporates leading-edge technology to project a touch panel into the air.

In between helping visitors, Chihira Junco uses her spare time to provide advertisements for shops and to introduce special events being held.

Go Chihira Junco

Foxconn Offers $5.3 Billion for Sharp

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Terry Gou

Foxconn wants to buy Sharp and will pay a tempting $5.3 billion (¥625 billion).

But it won’t be easy. Sure, Sharp is under pressure and Foxconn’s offer is meant to persuade Sharp’s creditors to make a decision based on the fiscal deal, rather than political considerations.

Yet politics is at the very heart of Japanese business. If a foreign company could now “buy Japan,” then this deal will be a shocker, a high water mark in Japan that would suggest a wave of bad financial news will finally drown traditional Japanese business culture.

Japanese government officials don’t want Sharp to come under foreign control, specifically citing the company’s technology in display panels. Well-known as a country run by a government-business coalition, the so-called “Japan Inc.” has spent time and money to ensure some of their high value technology doesn’t fall easily in Chinese, Korean or Taiwanese hands.

That’s why Sharp is getting a competing offer from another “Inc.”-- the Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, a government-backed investment fund. But it is almost half the amount of Foxconn’s bid.

INC of Japan already controls Japan Display Inc., another major display maker. These two Japanese panel makers share know-how in next-gen panel technology and mass production.

“Japan’s technology is leading the rest of the world and we would like to help make it even more competitive,” industry minister Motoo Hayashi told press.

The matter may be further complicated by Foxconn’s history of public relations nightmares. It is the world's largest electronics contractor manufacturer and the 3rd largest information technology company by revenue in the world.

If you own any of these products-- BlackBerry, iPad, iPhone, Kindle, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nokia and Wii U—you might own a Foxconn-manufactured product.

Yet Foxconn has been plagued by controversies relating to factory employees in China. A history of suicides-- blamed on working conditions-- provoked Foxconn into hiring Western PR companies. Despite that in, January 2012, about 150 Foxconn employees threatened to commit mass-suicide in protest.

Bloomberg Business reported, “The suicides introduced Foxconn to most of the world in the worst terms imaginable—as an industrial monster that treats its workers like machines, leveraging masses of cheap labor, mainly 18-to-25-year-olds from rural areas, to make products like the iPhone at seemingly impossible prices. For Western consumers, the lost lives were an invitation to consider the real cost of their electronic playthings. For the image-conscious companies with which Foxconn does business, including IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Nokia, Sony, Hewlett-Packard, and Apple, the suicides were a public-relations nightmare and a challenge to offshoring strategies essential to their bottom lines.”

Founder and Chairman Terry Gou, worth an estimated $5.9 billion and the richest man in Taiwan, didn’t help things with his tough guy manner. It takes a tough guy to run nearly 1 million workers in a single company but he has attracted unwanted attention with comments such as…

  • “democracy does not put food on the table”
  • Warren Buffet is too old to be doing business”
  • “hungry people have especially clear minds”
  • “an army of one thousand is easy to get, one general is tough to find”
  • [we] have a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache…”

It some circles, think of Donald Trump in America, this tough talk may get you elected to high office. Japan, a country that was politically correct before “PC” was invented, does not embrace the same mentality. In fact, the culture tends to couch everything in terms of what’s good for all. This is a country where a manufacturer of headphones might sell under a slogan “Bringing purity of sound and joy to customers’ lives…for the betterment of mankind.”

On top of the clash of cultures, Japan knows while Foxconn is mainly an OEM (assembles electronics to be sold under other brand names), the Sharp brand could be valuable especially if Foxconn wants to sell its own brand of products. At $135 billion, Foxconn would become a new and powerful competitor to many other Japanese companies.

In Japanese parlance, it would be thoughtless-- and rude! -- for Sharp’s creditors to sell to a foreigner that would hurt Japan Inc. And if the banks did this for the money, for their own financial interest--without respecting the expected civic behavior-- they would probably be penalized by other Japanese conglomerates which would withdraw or withhold their banking business.

If we’ve convinced you the Foxconn deal is tempting but not likely, and it would be a radical (and foreboding) solution by Japan standards, then we can only add: it has about as much chance as hell freezing over.

Sharp and its creditors hope to reach a decision by Feb. 4th, when Sharp will announce its latest quarterly results. Then we will see if a real climate change has taken hold in Japan.

Go Foxconn Wants Sharp

Update Feb. 6th: HELL FREEZES OVER

Foxconn tells Reuters that acquisition is agreed and now "just process," making history as the largest deal of its kind (foreign take-over) with a Japanese CE supplier.

The deal-maker was a bid more than double the amount proposed by a state-backed fund, the Innovation Network Corp of Japan (INCJ). Reuters reports, "So many investors were surprised to see an overseas firm gain the upper hand over a state fund and Sharp's shares shot up 17%..."

Sharp Chief Executive Kozo Takahashi confirms the company is focusing on talks with Foxconn, although he denies having officially designated Foxconn as the preferred bidder. Can the deal still drift south?

Yes, it can still fail but it is less likely as now failure involves loss of face with Foxconn, Taiwan industry and even global industry.

The historic acquisition doesn't just validate Foxconn, but serves as a testimony to the tremendous financial pressure on Japan's once-thriving consumer electronics realm. If the deal succeeds in the long term, it might shift Japanese attitudes toward foreign investment.

Google Takes Another Look at Google Glass

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Google Glass

Google Glass is back and this time it will be foldable (shown in a filing published with America’s FCC) and all business.

Google “retired the original Google Glass” for consumers in early 2015 but promised to rework its smart eyeglasses for businesses. While they had a chic appeal, many people felt the product to be an intrusion in public privacy.

The research and development of this commercial version of Google Glass is under Project Aura, run by Tony Fadell, the co-founder of connected home device company Nest (bought by Google in 2014).

While it is said to have been improved as well as made foldable, the Google Glass “enterprise” version sure looks like the same glasses Google founder Sergey Brin wore when he was drumming up publicity for his consumer prototype.

There is a bigger difference, though. Through the Glass at Work program, Google is recruiting developers to design commercial applications for the device.

And here is where we come in: certified partners will be authorized to distribute Glass (along with these new applications) when the re-designed Google Glass technology becomes commercially available. Eyeglasses may be a window on the world, but these eyeglasses could be your in-road into AR and VR applications for your customers.

Watch Fortune’s Video Showing the Folding-Up Google Glass Version

Go Read the Latest FCC Filing Documents on Google Glass (click on these links shown on FCC website)