A tale of two digital cities: A glimmer of new restaurant tech from CES, NRF conference

Every year, two major technology events convene within two weeks of each other. The first, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, focuses on new and innovative technologies for the consumer. The second, the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York City, is devoted to technologies for the retail marketplace.  Neither concentrates on the restaurant business, but attending both provides insights into what is to come for the foodservice industry, and what might be available already in other fields.

At the highest level, I would describe it this way:  CES was about digital “everything,” from phones and mobility to new means of display, wearable tech, fitness devices, new consumer interfacings in automobiles, and new capabilities in the home. The NRF event this year was really a show about data analytics – how business can use all the data digital technology is generating for businesses.

There was some crossover between the two events. The NRF featured an “iLab” exhibition section tucked at the back of the lower level that showcased consumer technologies that were unveiled at CES and suggest how some of these technologies might translate into retail establishments, including restaurants.  But in reality most were technologies that I had seen at CES a year before, and, while the section drew attention and was fun, it did not really fire the imagination on practical applications and take-home values for operators. 

The CES, on the other hand, was all about new technologies, concepts and innovations that, if successful in the consumer marketplace, would mean lower costs to a foodservice operator. The highlights suggested options that are within restaurateurs’ financial means and ability to support. The ease of adopting these technologies into workable realities for an operation – and restaurant consumers—was evident as well. 

Anything with digital displays that were large in size, curved to the point they could wrap around a column, transparent to allow applications on doors and windows, were of interest to me because they got me thinking about the obvious restaurant applications. 

On the mobility side, I always follow smart-device developments on both the hardware and software fronts. These new capabilities for smart devices—and note I am purposely not saying smart phones—could be platforms that both employees and customers alike could use. The business possibilities make the concept of “bring your own device,” or allowing restaurant employees to perform on-the-job functions on the staffers’ own phones, tablets and hybrid “phablets,” more and more a reality. That’s good for operators, since they would not have to worry about buying hardware or intensive training on devices that are unfamiliar to their employees.

Smaller booths tucked away from tech giants’ booths, far from the glitz and glamor that earn the CES such big play in the general media, often showcased the best fodder for what-if thinking. You can see components, parts and pieces that could pose larger solutions in the future to restaurant-related issues. For instance, you come upon glasses, cables, wireless devices, keyboards and other components that could be integrated into standard industry systems to create whole new devices and opportunities.

At the Big Show, POS, digital signage and mobility technologies were present as always. But if you looked up on any aisle to read the booth signage, there were no doubts left that this was a show about data – the collection, storage and science of slicing and dicing it into insights and intelligence. This wasn’t Big Data, or yesterday’s terms for captured information, but Data Analytics, the new buzz phrase for collecting and interpreting the data we collect in every direction.

Even the traditional industry hardware providers were showing solutions in this area, demonstrating that they can bring everything together and provide end-to-end solutions, not just one section of the process. They sought to prove that collecting data and turning it into intelligence doesn’t have to mean dealing with two vendors.

Many of the big-name tech companies exhibited at both the CES and the Big Show. But seeing the different products and services they showcased, in differently configured booths manned by distinct staffs and touting much different selling points, provided a full view of their capabilities. Attending both events was food for thought about what big tech innovators could do for the restaurant industry if they were so inclined. The trick would be getting the consumer side of the business to work with business-focused divisions. 

It was clear from my travels that the convergence of consumer and business technologies is happening. I would not be surprised in the future to see each of those two channels represented more prominently in each of the events.

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