Bluetoothtap with IBM
Paul Stringer
Paul Stringer Evolve/Mobile Lead

What's New Tue 30th January, 2018

Playing our part in the future of retail

Our proprietary Bluetoothtap reader is currently being used by IBM as part of an exciting new development in self-serve technology.


There’s plenty of interest in the project, which has recently been covered by the BBC’s technology show, Click (see below), and London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

Interest is high, perhaps, because existing self-serve checkouts are ripe for disruption. They’re slower to use than a standard human-operated till much of the time, and the experience they offer is clumsy; we’ve all shuddered at that dreaded phrase “unexpected item in bagging area”.

Now, as new technology brings fresh possibilities, self-service is once again under the spotlight. It’s interesting to see Amazon has separately been hitting headlines with its Amazon Go store, which uses an array of cameras and sensors to track what customers pick up as they move around the shop.

Say goodbye to scanning

IBM’s invention – the result of a collaboration between IBM’s innovation lab iX Group, Nordic ID and Equal Experts – takes a more pragmatic route. That’s something we can always get behind! The BBC has taken a look at the technology in action:

Click above to watch the invention in action on the BBC’s ‘Click‘ show (it’ll start from the IBM segment when you press play).

IBM’s insight was to focus on how to remove the act of scanning goods from the shopping experience. If this can be reliably achieved, the experience of in-store self-service can become as simple and convenient as online shopping.

This was a difficult proposition in a retail environment, where checkouts and point of sales are still centred around the traditional king of retail technologies – the barcode. But IBM theorised that if it could manage to remove the need to scan a barcode (and therefore the need for a till), they could dramatically speed up the checkout process.

In fact, going by a recent trial of IBM’s new technology, it’s made checkout 15x faster.

RFID for automated scanning

IBM’s solution replaces the barcode on goods with RFID tags. Once a customer is ready to checkout, they simply deposit their chosen products onto a pay point that wirelessly reads the tags and immediately tots up the total amount to pay.

This is near-instantaneous – and the real secret to its success is that regardless of how many items you’re buying, be it a single purchase or a basketful of goods, the checkout time is the same.

Where Bluetoothtap fits in

After solving the scanning problem, the final part of the puzzle was payment. This occurs via an app on the customer’s smartphone, but the goods still needed to be associated with the individual in question. QR codes obviously weren’t an option – they would just replace one kind of scanning with another and still require the customer to act as the cashier.

This led IBM to approach Equal Experts in relation to our own invention, Bluetoothtap (previously covered on this blog).

By combining readings from multiple sensors built into modern smartphones, Bluetoothtap is able to use Bluetooth to detect a ‘contactless’, proximity-based tap. And unlike NFC, which has limited adoption and patchy coverage in the current crop of smartphones, bluetooth is a ubiquitous, standard technology across all smartphones.

This means Bluetoothtap can be used in all kinds of situations where a QR code might conceivably be used currently – but it replaces the act of scanning with a much faster, easier-to-perform ‘tap’ that users are already familiar with. And as it uses Bluetooth, it’s compatible with Android and iOS devices.

A superior shop – for customer and business

Technology like this is more convenient for the customer, and it can provide the retailer with a valuable source of insight too. It all promises to help businesses get the right stock in place given weather, the day of the week, time of year, price of petrol – and deepen their understanding of what customers are looking for.

We’re thrilled at the small role Equal Experts has been able to play in this success via Bluetoothtap, and look forward to seeing how the technology develops.