GDR met Israeli technology company Sonarax at a recent conference and we were fascinated to hear them talk about their ultrasonic technology and how they plan to – quite literally – make waves in retail. Innovation researcher Charlie Lloyd sat down with them to find out more about their tech and its implications for the shopper journey.
Sonarax bills itself as a ‘deep-tech intelligent-acoustic software company with unmatched capabilities’. Its proposition hinges on its technology, which enables the transfer of data over short distances via ultrasonic soundwaves, ie sound not perceptible by the human ear. This form of close proximity data transfer has obvious similarities with other, more widely implemented solutions such as near-field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth beacons, but my conversation with Sonarax revealed that ultrasonic data transfer offers a number of advantages, despite carrying lower awareness and (so far) fewer use cases.
The biggest advantage of this type of data transfer is that the device transferring the data doesn’t need to be equipped with any special tech, it just needs to be able to emit sound. This opens up the ability to send data to consumers’ devices via over-the-top channels like TV and radio, which gives Sonarax the potential to build its own customer journey in a way that Bluetooth or NFC, whose use cases lie primarily in and around the store, can’t.
A new path to purchase
Sonarax’s vision for the use of its technology in retail covers three key moments across the customer journey, starting right at the beginning and ending at payment. Let’s walk through what this would be like in practice.
- At home: The consumer is sitting at home, watching the television and a supermarket advert runs during a break. If the consumer has that supermarket’s app downloaded to their phone, ultrasonic sound during the advert would then make a connection to the phone. It might trigger a push notification offering a recipe download or an offer linked to the advert, but crucially it would let the supermarket know that that app user had watched that specific ad at that exact time. In doing so it allows the supermarket to track offline conversion and understand the link between that ad and any eventual purchases: a tracking capability unique to ultrasonic data transfer.
- In-store: Once the customer has come to the store, Sonarax can send highly targeted messaging and promotions to their phone. This is the point at which the technology is most closely aligned with beacons, but Sonarax claim that it works better in crowded areas and is better at accurately pinpointing the customer’s location in the store. The technological reasoning for this claim is that sound has a natural ability to be confined to a specific space and radio waves do not. Radio waves travel through walls and sound waves can be made not to which allows it to detect positioning in a very precise measure, down to a couple of inches. This means that offers and content can be tailored to the products the customer is browsing at that moment, which is a capability useful across lots of categories, but especially in supermarkets.
- Payment: Right at the finish line of this path to purchase, the customer can use the tech to pay quickly and seamlessly. The USP of Sonarax’s handling payment is that any coupons or offers collected before or during the customer’s store visit can be automatically redeemed at payment. Sonarax payment is also a hands-free experience as all interactions can be made on the kiosk POS while the phone sits in a pocket listening quietly. This concept won Sonarax the Worldline e-Payments Challenge in September, for their joint entry with Stimshop.
At this point, it’s worth noting that this tech is not new, and in fact GDR covered very similar tech from Sonarax’s rival Chirp as far back as 2012. One of the biggest questions I had for them, then, was: why is this tech more relevant now, in 2019? And why do they think it didn’t catch on sooner?
Their view is that the time is ripe now because both consumers and retailers are ready for it. Consumers have devices that are more mature and have a longer battery life, whereas in 2012 they were still using the Galaxy SII and its equivalents. On top of that, consumers feel very differently about privacy having broadly accepted the value exchange of personalisation for privacy: 63% now prioritise the former over the latter according to a 2019 industry research. At the same time, physical retailers are in the market for deeper, more holistic solutions that can help them convert customers having soldiered their way through falling revenues and store closures in the intervening years. Sonarax also inform me that its tech is better than Chirp’s both in terms of the distances it can transfer data across and the amount of data that can be exchanged: by the end of the year, Sonarax plans to be able to achieve download speeds of 1kb per second in crowded places.
Other use cases
There are use cases outside of retail too. Sonarax is working with a number of museums to send relevant content to visitors as they move through different exhibitions and examine different pieces. In India, its tech is being used as an access mechanism for lockers, and Sonarax also plans to build a portfolio of case studies in stadiums where the tech can be used to provide fans wayfinding and indoor navigation as it is the only technology thus far that has proven to work while in motion, and other information.
All in all, it looks like there are solid grounds for optimism. There are some issues to iron out, such as what happens if the app user denies the necessary permissions which are integral to accessing these features, and there is the perennial question about whether consumers really do want to engage with targeted ads on the move – the answer to which seems to have pegged back beacons from achieving the penetration many expected them to. But the start-to-finish solution that Sonarax offers is very compelling, and consumers may well be receptive to receiving relevant content as they watch or listen to adverts from retailers they already shop with. If they are, then retailers will have a very attractive proposition on their hands.