Filling the Blanks

By John McCormick  |  Posted 2002-12-16 Print this article Print

Prada wants to reinvent retailing. So its first Epicenter store features everything from antennas and chips embedded in clothing tags, to video displays hanging from the racks, to clear doors on fitting rooms that are supposed to fog up when you walk in.

Filling the Blanks

But building a store that's innovative, that can project a brand image, and that can still serve as a place of commerce, isn't easy. Vendors that worked on the Prada store said it was among the most complex and demanding projects they've ever participated in.

"It's not often you come across a project—and I've been in the business for 20 years—where there are so many things, so many parts of it, that are new and different," says Josh Weisberg, president of ScharffWeisberg Inc. (SWI), which helped develop the store's audio and video systems. "You really have to throw away the book and look at a blank piece of paper and figure out how to do it."

Technology development was led by three companies; AMO, a Koolhaas company that explores architectural ideas; IDEO, an industrial design firm in the United Kingdom; and the New York office of IconNicholson.

IconNicholson had the biggest job. In addition to its role as program manager, IconNicholson was the main software developer and systems integrator. The company built the store's database, wrote the code that linked the wands and other computers to the store's sales and inventory tracking software, and, the code that sits behind the screens in the dressing rooms.

IDEO designed the wands and made a point of including a camera in the fitting room, so shoppers can see an "instant replay" of how they look from all sides in their new garments, in a "magic mirror." The rooms also have small closets that read the tags on pieces of clothing and display information on them and similar goods on an interactive touch screen. The radio frequency identification system itself was installed by KTP, a London-based company that specializes in RFID.

Each and every vendor was pushing the boundaries of knowledge. IDEO's Martin says, "it became clear, I think, to everyone on the team that even when the store opened, you could not guarantee that everything would work perfectly."

Developing the systems presented problems. For instance:

  • Wavelength distortion. The building on the corner of Broadway and Prince contains a lot of metal, from studs in walls to cabling connecting computer and video equipment. KTP found that the metal was distorting or destroying the transmission of radio waves.
  • Interference. Each dressing room now contains enough high-tech equipment to power a small office—two computers, two video displays, a camera and RFID equipment. The result: additional havoc with the RFID signals.
  • Hand-feel. IDEO went through several prototypes to get the wand to meet the size, shape and aesthetic goals of Prada and Koolhaas.
  • Not available. Prada wanted video equipment that was not just interactive, but displayed information in an unusual, edgy way. So ScharffWeisberg developed a system on its own.

Then, there was the bane of all unusual and unusually big technical projects: a deadline. Work began in January and Prada wanted the store open before Christmas of 2001.

Tuning a radio frequency identification system, according to KPT managing director Jon Lowe, is similar to tuning an old car radio. You move the dial—or frequency—a little bit until it latches onto the signal you want it to read.

Antennas and Texas Instruments radio equipment were constantly rearranged and then fine-tuned. The original cabling of computers was replaced with metal-coated cables, to contain static and noise. Components in dressing room closets were shielded in wire mesh.

"There was a learning curve," Martin says.

The team also pressed repeatedly to make the wands smaller. The first prototype contained just the basic guts of the machine. One promising model was called "the brick,'' with a screen placed on its flat bottom.

IDEO isn't exactly sure why Prada rejected the brick. But the final design is more like a flat, plastic goblet with a screen in the handle. The radio frequency reader is in a cup at the top. When not in use, the wands sit on shelves, cup-side down.

Call it the Prada iPaq. The wand basically is a Compaq handheld computer running a Microsoft Pocket PC operating system. Since IDEO only needed enough for the New York store—less than 100—it had to produce the units itself.

On the video side, ScharffWeisberg had to find a way to get processors to present pictures the Prada way.

Clothing manufacturers like to show off their products in portrait mode, akin to an 8-by-11 photograph. Most computer and television monitors, however, display more information across than down, in what's known as landscape mode.

Even so, Prada wanted a wide screen. It wanted to display oversized images that could be seen from far away.

If SWI were just working in portrait mode, that would have been relatively easy to overcome, says SWI president Weisberg. If they were working just in wide screen, that also would have been relatively easy to overcome, he says. "But we're working wide-screen portrait mode, so we have to rotate and rescale the image to fit a nontraditional [screen].''

SWI tried to use portrait software and video cards to do the rotation, but it found that playing back the high-resolution video files in rotated portrait mode fashion— with interactivity—was too much for the processors to deal with and parts of images were being dropped.

So, like IDEO, SWI was forced to build a custom unit. They use standard processors and standard memory. And even though the company had to design circuits and write code, the screens were ready to be installed at Prada.

Or so Weisberg thought. Once installed in the store, the demands were too great. A fault in the central processors meant they kept blowing out.

"We didn't have the time to do the hard-core testing on all of these devices that we would have liked," Weisberg says. "A lot of this stuff came fresh out of the oven. You put it in the store, you turn it on, and if it goes ka-boom, you take it out, fix it, put it back."

The company eventually worked out all the bugs. The screens are a big attraction. But the store didn't open by its October launch date.


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