Why the Amazon Fresh store made me feel like a lab rat

The shop uses similar technologies as scientists use to monitor rodent behaviour

A few weeks ago I felt like a lab rat in a supermarket. It was my first time visiting one of the new Amazon Fresh stores in London. (Known as “Amazon Go” in the US). The concept is that you can grab anything from the shelves and walk out of the store without paying at a cash register or self-checkout. Instead, everything you take from the shelves is charged to your Amazon account. 

What made me feel like I was part of a science experiment was the technology behind all of this. It’s remarkably similar to the type of tech that follows the movements of rodents in behavioural studies.

 All along the store’s ceiling is an array of depth-sensing cameras that follows you around the store and detects when you pick up an item from the shelf. The shelves themselves have weight sensors, so the store knows if you’ve picked up multiple of the same item. If you decide you don’t want something, you can put it back on the shelf and you won’t be charged for it.

Being on camera in a store is quite common, but the fact that information was being calculated from camera images and shelf sensors was new. At least, new for a supermarket. 

This type of monitoring of individuals as they move around a space is also used to study rodents. Rats don’t pick up items from a supermarket shelf, but they might step on an exercise wheel, and sensors can measure how often and how long the animals use it, as an indication for how active they are. And depth-sensing cameras, the same technology that follow people around the Amazon Fresh store, have also been used to monitor rat behaviour

The Amazon Fresh stores are still very new, so they really are an experiment, in a way. It’s an experiment to see whether people are using the stores at all, what kind of purchases are popular, and just generally checking whether the camera and sensor technology works. 

My reward for subjecting myself to this experiment was a picnic in the park with the things we bought, which is the kind of freedom a real lab rat can only dream of.


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