Virtual walls combine analog and digital elements -- paper posters and wireless transmissions -- that offer fascinating business and branding opportunities for enterprises. These walls are powerful tools because they merge the emotional experiences of the analog world with the intellectual experiences of the digital world.
Imagine being stuck on a subway without anything to read (a situation so horrifying that I don't want to imagine it). Then, like a mirage, you see bookshelves. You rub your eyes but they're still there -- dozens of book spines and covers on the car's wall. It's not a mirage; it's a conceptual student project.
Three students from the Miami Ad School (a global educational institution with a tagline of "The School of Pop Culture Engineering") have come up with a virtual wall for downloading books. The wall, which is a poster attached to a subway car wall, is embedded with Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology. NFC transmits only a few inches, but the virtual wall doesn't require access to a long-range technology, such as cellular or WiFi.
A cellphone with NFC could download 10 pages of any book on the virtual wall. That should be sufficient to get passengers through a subway ride. After passengers exit the subway, the application will display a map of nearby New York public libraries where patrons may borrow books, of course.
The students -- Max Pilwat, Keri Tan, and Ferdi Rodriguez -- call their project the Underground Library, and designed it especially to encourage people to patronize libraries. Bravo to them, and I hope it becomes a reality.
Although the Underground Library is just a concept, other virtual walls are actually realities. In 2011, one of the largest retailers in the world started establishing virtual walls in South Korean subway stations. These are large, photo-realistic posters that display Tesco's grocery store products. It's like looking at milk, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, etc., on store shelves.
A QR code is displayed beneath every product, which customers may order from their cellphone by scanning the code with Tesco's application. The supermarket will deliver products on the same day, leaving them waiting for busy commuters when they return from work.
This initial test has been so successful that Tesco has established smaller virtual walls on South Korean bus shelters that use barcodes for scanning via cellphone.
Other retailers have started to copy the technique. Cold Storage supermarkets in Singapore posted QR and code-based virtual walls in subway stations, although the products don't appear to be displayed photo-realistically on shelves, and not everyone thought they were effectively implemented. In the UK, the Brighton branch of the John Lewis Waitrose chain covered outside display windows with pictures of products that customers could order via a QR code from the company's mobile website.
Last May, Peapod, the online delivery arm of Giant Food supermarkets, launched a virtual wall in a busy underground subway tunnel in Chicago. The posters of Giant Food products looked similar to Tesco's virtual walls and covered both sides of the tunnel. By downloading the Peapod QR code smartphone app, Chicagoans could order products delivered to their homes. Peapod has expanded the tests to train stations in at least three other states.
Although mobile websites can offer the same, if not many more, products and services compared with these virtual walls, virtual walls can encourage action in different ways. They are extremely visible since brands can post them in a subway tunnel or car, on a store's window, or on the side of a building. And designers can arrange products to resemble familiar store shelves, simplifying the user interaction.
With technologies like NFC, users can receive immediate gratification, such as downloading pages of ebooks from the Underground Library. In fact, why couldn't enterprises post electronic walls in their lobbies or reception desks that would allow anyone to download, say, white papers, manuals, or product coupons?
Virtual walls offer fascinating possibilities for shopping and information distribution. CEOs, CMOs, and CIOs might do well to brainstorm ideas to determine how erecting walls could actually break down barriers to their customers.
I wasn't thinking about transmitting QR codes through SMS but, rather, other codes, such as barcode numbers. If a virtual wall posted barcode numbers that could be easily read (not the tiny numbers on barcodes), feature phone users could order products by entering the numbers.
Kim, you took the words right off my fingers. I was wondering the same thing. In general, I hate those precious looking interfaces that require you to touch a book or whatever as it seems like a waste of space.
"People who don't have data packages or data devices are left out, unless there's some sort of, for example, SMS system."
@Alan: QR code transmitted through SMS sounds like a very interesting idea. I don't think any company is taking advantage of it yet. The assumption is that if the users have a smartphone with a camera they should also be having a data package or a Wi-Fi access but this may not necessarily be true.
I'm generally listening to technology podcasts or reading (phone, Kindle, tablet) when I take public transportation, too. But if I saw a virtual wall while I was waiting, I'd certainly look at it. If I could order groceries that I needed quickly, and at a fair price, I'd consider doing so.
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