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Robotic Assistance And Item Identification: An End To Grocery Store Frustration?

Shopping at the local Safeway is becoming an increasingly annoying experience. The number of human-staffed checkout lines steadily diminishes, replaced by self-checkout stations guaranteed to cause my blood pressure to skyrocket. Assuming the card reader correctly scans the magnetic strips on my frequent-shopper and credit cards (always a crapshoot), the optical scanner is invariably unable to discern the UPC codes on at least a few items. The UPC-less produce is often missing the five-digit code that identifies it to the equipment, or the digits are too tiny for my tired old eyes to accurately discern (someday I'll break down and get bifocals...). And judging from the perpetual harried, exhausted expression on the solitary Safeway employee charged with manning all of the self-checkout stands, mine isn't a unique experience.

Don't misunderstand...I get the underlying motivation. Automated checkout "attendants" don't require salaries, only electricity, and assuming they don't break down, they'll run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without need for a caffeine, cigarette, meal or slumber break. They're therefore a means of keeping grocery prices down (as well as bolstering Safeway's profits, of course). And if they worked rapidly and reliably, I wouldn't mind the transition. But they don't. And don't get me started on the incremental-weight confusion whenever I place an environmentally sensitive canvas bag on them...

If Toshiba has its way, however, at least some of my frustration will diminish. As recently reported at Engadget and The Verge, the company has released a supermarket scanner that will accurately discern not only the aforementioned labels (and coupons), but also identify fruits and vegetables by sight (though I suspect it'll struggle to discern conventional versus organic). I'll truly believe it when I see it, but I'm cautiously optimistic. And I look forward to the time when it'll correctly distinguish my Cheerios versus Wheaties, too.

But getting to the checkout stand at all assumes that I've previously been successful in finding everything I want to purchase. That's where Kinect comes in. Whole Foods is prototyping a Kinect-augmented, robot-controlled grocery cart. It'll store your shopping list, automatically checking off items as you put them in the cart, help you track down items you can't find (dear Safeway, why do you put taco seasoning packets across and down the aisle from the Hispanic food items, versus alongside them?), alert you to promotions on products that you frequently buy, as you pass by, and assist with the subsequent checkout process by downloading a cart-content database to the register.

This one was more popular in the blogosphere; hit up the links below for more coverage, and don't forget to also check out the video clip below them: