NCR innovating again, but to where?

NCR Corp.’s latest innovation brings to mind an old adage: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

The company has recently been talking up a new offering which will see advertisements displayed at check-out lines. That means as you queue to pay for your loaf of bread, bunch of broccoli and mega-sized bag of Doritos, you can gaze at a succession of ads played on a display screen. The ads can even be linked to your purchases, so fans of Doritos may see a come-on for Rolaids.

It’s an interesting application and – as always – you have to give NCR credit for always thinking, always pushing the boundaries a little. This is the company, you will recall, that came up with an Internet-enabled microwave not too long ago. This handy device allows kitchen dwellers to pop up a bag of popcorn to accompany the creature feature while also checking to see who played the male lead in the 1956 production of Rodan. (Just so you don’t have to rush to a browser, it was Kenji Sahara.)

NCR also recently showcased the M-Bracelet, a wearable computer that can send and receive messages, link to Web sites and connect to ATMs. It is even possible for two bracelet wearers to exchange information during a handshake.

It is unlikely that either the microwave or the bracelet will become mainstream, must-have devices. Personally, I have no desire to surf on the same device that melts up a batch of smores, nor do I really want to message with my wrist or wonder if a friendly pat on the back was camaraderie or stealth data mining.

But it is easy to see the potential in these inventions. The microwave previews a multi-functional future, in which specific devices take on more capabilities than their original inventors ever envisioned. The next phase will be house-as-device, structures with computers embedded in every wall, floor and ceiling. As this future develops, the microwave will be remembered as one move down that road.

Similarly, the M-Bracelet is a stepping-stone unit. The bracelet will either expand to include more functions, or we will opt for hand-helds rather than wearable computers. Either way, the M-Bracelet as it currently exists will not be around in two years, but again it will be seen as innovative.

And that brings us back to the check-out ads. Consider that we already have ads in publications, on radio, television, movie screens, billboards, the Web, hockey arena boards and athletes’ uniforms, and now even on food – Global Television is adding its logo to the little stickies affixed to apples.

Plus, if you watched the television coverage of the last Molson Indy in Toronto, you actually saw more ads than did the people in the stands. Computers were used to add virtual billboards that did not – in reality – exist. Heck, even calling the race the Molson Indy is an advertisement.

Given all that, do we really need to look at pitches while standing in line?

I think I’ll give this innovation a big miss. The technology is not particularly ground-breaking and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of social benefit.