Touch technology: A round-up

November 9, 2009: 6:02 AM ET

Touch technology help non-tech industries improve business, efficiency, and their bottom lines.

The SMART Table brings touch to masses and classes. Photo: SmartTech

The SMART Table brings touch to masses and classes. Photo: SmartTech

We all oohed and aahed when Apple's (AAPL) iPhone came out because of how cool it was, especially its multi-touch capability that let us flick through photos and "pinch" and expand photos and websites.

Now, with Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 7 specially formatted for touch capabilities, and everyone from manufacturers to hotels touting their tough capabilities, we know human contact with computer screens is more than a gimmick — it's here to stay.

Touch is already a big business — estimates indicate that sales will be more than $3.66 billion for this year and will catapult 145% to almost $10 billion in the next five years.

Only half of that revenue is coming from consumer electronics (i.e. cell phones, digital frames, etc.) — the rest is from retail, hospitality and more. What many people forget is that this 30-year-old technology has been integrated in non-tech industries for years — mainly as a way to improve efficiency, but never as a centerpiece.

So, we decided to take a look at the best of the rest and highlight the most innovative, business-savvy ways other industries are implementing touch technology — and helping improve their bottom line.

Retail: Ralph Lauren (RL) started playing with touch technology three years ago. David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising and marketing, says the company was inspired by the movie The Minority Report and how the entire world was immersed in touch technology. So Lauren decided to embed a 67-inch image touchscreen in their store windows to let potential customers browse through merchandise before coming in. (Brings new meaning to the term "window-shopping.")

Another example is from bridal shop Priscilla of Boston, which began integrating touch into its store to not only increase efficiency but also add to the customer experience and lessen frustration for brides. Before brides (and bridesmaids) had to wade through clunky and thick catalogs, now brides only have to pick a color, dress features and they're presented with remaining options. They can also watch video of how the dress moves down the runway if they're still about trying on a gown.

The touch shopper has been a huge success, says Jeremy Capello, director of marketing. The conversion rate, which is the ratio of purchases compared to browsing, has doubled in its Philadelphia store since the launch of the touch shopper at the beginning of October.

Banking: BBVA Compass, a regional bank based in Alabama and a member of the BBVA group, started implementing what they call a "virtual banker" in six of their branches in September. Instead of having to wait for a banker, customers are taken to a separate room and presented with a touchscreen.

The customer is then connected to a live banker in any BBVA Compass branch via webcam. The banker then helps the customer with a split screen — half is the webcam and the other half is the touch — so that the level of personalization and interactivity emulates an in-person interaction.

BBVA Compass is "bridging the real and virtual world" in order to best serve their customers, says Alejandro Carriles, senior vice president and director of research and development. Not to mention, it's extremely cost effective (implementing the technology costs under $10,000 per brand). Expect to do more transactions Jetsons-style — BBVA Compass will roll out the "virtual banker" to 70 more branches next year.

Hospitality: The Sheraton Hotels and Resorts has really embraced touch technology. The company, a unit of Starwood Hotels & Resorts (HOT)  had implemented touch tables two years ago and now is in six hotels.

The touch table-tops were initially used just to listen to music and purchase items from the hotel, but Sheraton is now developing software that will better fit customer needs and demands, says Hoyt H. Harper, Sheraton's senior vice president.

For instance, a new application will allow the touch table-tops to recognize items such as wine glasses so that customers can simply place their glass of sauvignon blanc on the table and the touch table-top will tell them about the wine, how it was made and what are the best food pairings from the bar. It's been a great investment, says Harper who has seen customer satisfaction increase for guests who use the touch table-tops.

Education: Smart Technologies, the makers of the interactive SMART Board whiteboard have also introduced the SMART Table to classrooms. Already in more than 500 schools, SMART Tables have been an incredible success already both for business and for students.

New York's Verrazano School has used SMART tables in its classrooms since May, and teachers say it's helping low-performing students with their cognitive skills. "They don't realize that they are actually learning, because the table has many activities that incorporate fine motor and gross motor skills," says first grade school teacher Joyce Li. Not exactly a business, but definitely investing in the future, says principal Gregg Korrol, who feels that the SMART table has only helped improve classroom dynamic and encouraged students to participate more in the learning process.

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