- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Researcher Susan Sedberry is overseeing the final touches to a research lab at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville that she calls “an interactive Amazeum for adults.”

Arkansas Business (https://bit.ly/1RWCC2j ) reports that the Retail Innovation & Technology Lab, to be called the McMillon Innovation Studio, is in a former convenience store at street level of the Harmon Avenue Parking Garage.

The studio was made possible by a $1 million donation from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Doug McMillon and his wife, Shelley, in April 2014. At the time, the donation was for the establishment of the university’s proposed School of Global Retail Operations.

In January, McMillon visited Sedberry at the Harmon Avenue location and heard her pitch for the creation of an interactive studio. McMillon, a 1989 graduate of the university’s Walton College of Business, then directed the university to use a portion of his original donation to create the studio.

“He allowed us to use his name, which he never does,” said Sedberry, managing director of the Innovation Lab at UA’s Center for Retailing Excellence. “He said it was so important for Arkansas to be known as a high-tech enabler.”

In a statement when the university announced the lab’s funding in January, McMillon said, “Customers want a shopping experience that blends seamlessly into their lives, and that requires a constant focus on new technologies and services. We hope this lab will spark great ideas, create a community around retail innovation and demonstrate the incredible possibilities of a career in the industry.”

Sedberry envisions the studio as a showroom for emerging technologies in the retail industry. The first exhibit will be the “kitchen of the future,” made possible by donations from companies such as Lowe’s and Samsung.

The pieces were scheduled to begin arriving last week, and Sedberry hopes to have the kitchen ready for business by mid-April. Everything in the kitchen is open to visitors to inspect, use and, most valuably, review.

Samsung is donating the refrigerator of the future: When the door closes a camera takes a picture of the contents and downloads it to a smartphone app. A shopper can then get a picture of his or her refrigerator to know what’s running low - or which child forgot to put the cap back on the ketchup.

“You can see whether you have mayonnaise or eggs or need relish,” Sedberry said. “The range of the future will actually let you preheat on your way home so you can pop a pizza in; or, if you’re like me, when you get to the office and can’t remember if you turned the range off or not, you can turn it off much like an alarm system.

“Isn’t that fun, finally? We’re getting to Tomorrowland at Disneyland and the Jetsons and all that stuff people thought of a long time ago.”

For the rest of the month of April, the innovation lab is also the headquarters for trials with the Starship delivery robot. The robot, created in Estonia by the founders of Skype, is a 25-pound, six-wheeled vehicle designed to deliver goods the last mile in the supply chain.

Starship executives were on campus the weekend of April 2-4 and left one of the prototypes with Sedberry and her students. Students learned the technology and inner workings - “they taught us how to take it apart and fix it,” Sedberry said - and then will put the robot through its paces on campus to measure how it performs.

“For the next few weeks, on campus, we’ll be running it around just testing the reliability and social acceptance,” Sedberry said. “We really wanted to see social interaction and is someone going to pick it up and try to take it away. It won’t work if you do.

“It’s amazing technology. We’re delighted they’re leaving it with us.”

Starship wants to take the robot up and down the East Coast this summer, and Arkansas has applied for its students to be the robot’s handlers during those trials, Sedberry said. University students have already taken Reggie the Robot - Sedberry said the name is unofficial - to the Fayetteville Farmers Market, where it was big hit partially because Sedberry filled it with candy.

“We had two little girls who thought it was the best thing since sliced bread,” said Sedberry, perhaps overestimating children’s appreciation for bread.

The McMillon Studio is part of the university’s business school and Center for Retailing Excellence, but Matt Waller said the facility will provide hands-on learning opportunities for any academic discipline. Waller, the interim dean of the Walton College of Business, said seeing technology in action will benefit students in business, marketing, information technology and a host of other fields.

“If you look at most successful innovation that is commercialized, it’s rarely ideas or processes or products that are completely out of the blue,” Waller said. “It normally comes from combining ideas or disciplines that aren’t typically combined. Part of what we’re hoping comes out of the McMillon Innovation Studio is that it will be a studio that will enable students and faculty from different disciplines to work together on the same projects.

“This lab will enable us to bring students together who are of different disciplines to look at the same opportunities and challenges and bring their unique perspectives.”

Along that line, Sedberry said there will be an area set aside that she plans to call Universe that will serve as a think tank for students. One student can write an idea on a whiteboard and then, after others add their suggestions and expansions to the idea, the group can meet to develop the idea.

The exhibits are a chance for students to experience the technology involved in different fields, Sedberry said. The 1,800-SF building will also be the site of Sedberry’s class on category management, and eventually she wants a supply-chain section where students and faculty can have items shipped to the studio.

Meanwhile, Sedberry said, the studio will have rotating exhibits of different emerging technologies. Students will see how each does or doesn’t work.

“You can actually provide feedback on it and improve it or say whether or not you would use it as a shopper in the future. Was it cool? Was it useful? Would you change it?” Sedberry said. “When you’re ready to commercialize your thing or you need to understand consumer acceptance behavior before you try to commercialize your thing, I can test it here. I can absolutely.

“It does sound like an idea. I’m trying to turn it into something besides an idea.”


Information from: Arkansas Business, https://www.arkansasbusiness.com

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