“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?” Those words, made famous by the artificially intelligent computer HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” resound in my ears every time I think about the topic of this week’s article: virtual assistants.

For those of you too young to recall, HAL was the artificially intelligent computer aboard Discovery in the film that attended to the myriad of details requiring oversight as the ship’s crew made its way to Jupiter. Its seemingly omnipresent red camera lens monitored all ship activity.

With HAL’s words still fresh in my memory, even after all of these years, it is with a bit of personal trepidation that I will discuss how digital signage can be used to add a virtual assistant to any sales or marketing process. But don’t worry, with this sort of application there’s no danger of getting sucked out into the cold recesses of space.

As in “2001,” the concept behind a virtual assistant is simple: make a complex process simple and manageable through the use of an efficient, “intelligent” computer. Putting that concept into practice here on earth is helping two Wichita, KS, area businesses extend their sales and marketing efforts and better serve their customers while freeing up personnel for other critical tasks.

At Walnut Valley Garden Center in Andover, KS, outside Wichita, an elaborate, interactive digital signage setup helps customers determine how much product they’ll need for a given landscaping or garden project by combining maps from Google Earth, a digital signage controller from Keywest Technology and an Orion touch-screen LCD panel with a data base of landscaping products that the store carries and their recommended coverage area.

Customers simply type in their names and addresses when using the system, and a map of their individual property is summoned from Google Earth. By touching the screen to define the boundaries of their project elo boost, customers trigger a computer to determine the types of products to use and how much they’ll need. For instance, by designating an area on the map, they can learn what type of fertilizer they need for their lawn and how much to buy.

For those who are new to gardening, the system cycles through digital signage presentations encouraging them to touch the screen to select one of 12 different types of gardens. After settling on a design, the system allows customers to interact and tells them exactly what’s needed -including plants, mulch and rocks- to build a similar garden in their yards.

At Randy Dean Construction in Wichita, another interactive digital signage system using a Keywest Technology digital signage controller, a touch-screen sensor interface from ELO and a 32in flat panel LCD greets potential buyers as they enter a model home. While Randy Dean’s sales agent can answer the questions of one buyer, the interactive digital sign system can take other prospective buyers on full 360-degree virtual tours of all Randy Dean homes, access and print floor plans, examine the builder’s home inventory and access the company’s Web site -all without taking the sales agent away from the prospective buyer.

Out-of-home media specialist DSX Media in Wichita designed and delivered both systems, including creating digital signage content, interactive branching and delivering digital signage hardware and software, touch-screen controller and flat panel LCD screen. In the case of Randy Dean Construction, DSX Media also sold advertising contracts to aligned businesses like mortgage bankers and title companies so their commercial messages could be interwoven into a loop of content that plays till the screen is touched.

While the specifics of both applications differ, they share the concept of using interactive digital signage -a hybrid of digital kiosk technology and conventional linear digital signage pages- to boost both businesses’ sales by in essence projecting the presence of a virtual sales assistant to answer many of the questions consumers typically ask. Doing so elevates digital signage to a new plateau, somewhere far beyond the role of an electronic equivalent of a printed sign, where it becomes an integral part of an orchestrated sales process.


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