The touchscreen revolution
Reach out and touch something
By Steve Proctor

It's just past noon and Heidi Landry is feeling a little hungry. The third-year business student at Saint Mary's University in Halifax is nowhere near the cafeteria, but by stopping at a new kiosk positioned in a hightraffic student area, she can check the menu, review the nutritional value of each meal, and even check out events happening on campus with the swipe of a finger.

Designed to operate with the ease of an iPhone, the new touchscreen kiosk represents the latest salvo in the touchscreen revolution that is moving into malls, restaurants, and service centres accommodating large numbers of people.

The first touchscreen technology may have been developed in a Swiss science lab 40 years ago, but it was the banks that first brought it to the masses when they quietly replaced the heavy buttons on their ATMs with slick screens.

As entrepreneurs took note of the public's acceptance, touch pads were integrated into cash registers and medical devices. Nancy Knowlton, a Saint Mary's University grad, saw further opportunities when she started Smart Technologies and began selling touchsensitive screens for use in the classroom and the boardroom. Now a public company, Smart Technologies has annual sales of $800 million.

But touchscreens remained largely a novelty until the 2007 launch of Apple's iPhone. The success of the iPhone proved that touchscreens could be developed elegantly, affordably, and be received with massive public excitement.

The success led to an explosion of growth that continues today. Grocery giants Sobeys and Superstore have had touchscreen selfcheckouts for a couple of years now, and big box retailers like Rona, Kent, and Home Depot have followed suit.

In some restaurants, like the Rockbottom Brew Pub on trendy Spring Garden Road, waiters no longer bring a wine list. They bring an iPad so diners can scan through selections, and if they desire, explore meal pairings. Waiters don't take orders with a pen, pad or paper either. They use touchscreen iPhones, sending orders directly from table to the kitchen.

"Technology is allowing restaurant owners to create efficiencies, reduce errors and satisfy the increasing demand by customers to know more about what they are eating," says Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice president for the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association. "Touchsceeen technology can provide customers access to detailed nutritional information that's virtually impossible to provide on paper now."

And with Canadian Tire promising investment in "next in class" technology (including touch-enabled communication in all stores), more sleek interactive screens in big retail operations are a virtual certainty.

"Retailers are hyper-competitive, always trying to stay ahead of the technology curve, or at least trying to keep up with it," says Jim Cormier, Atlantic Canada director with the Retail Council of Canada. "Retailers are definitely more app friendly than before, but how far an individual business will go to embrace something like touchscreens will depend on the balance between perceived benefits and costs. Technology changes so quickly."

Will it be the next big retail thing? He said the larger national chains are likely to experiment with it before the Mom and Pop stores look at it. With some big box stores pondering downsizing as crowds thin, and more people shopping on-line, he said touchscreens may be a way to bring people back to the stores. "If you can give them the on-line experience in the store, with the added benefit of personal service, who knows where that could go."

Glen Dormody, a regional vice president with RBC, has some ideas. He has seen climbing customer loyalty scores at five Halifax branches that have been built or remodelled to include interactive advice areas– using touchscreen technology–to support customer life events, like purchasing a home or saving for retirement. "It's a pilot project that has been a huge success," he said. "People are looking for a shopping experience and find the ability to interact with technology on their own terms to be very satisfying."

So satisfying that new concept stores are now slated for Dieppe, New Brunswick and St. John's, Newfoundland.

It's possible the touchscreen evolution has really just begun. At a recent emerging technology show, global market research giant, DisplaySearch, predicted the demand for touchscreen modules is expected to double from $16 billion in 2012 to $31.9 billion by 2018.