Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 42 seconds

Little-known Technologies: Big Impact on Business

zioskA few weeks ago I had a British experience at Pizzeria Uno's near Boston. No, they weren't serving fish and chips. On each table at the restaurant was a little wireless device. When I was done eating I paid for my meal by using the device. No server was involved. I say this was a British experience because every time I visit my wife's family in London. my kids drag us to the local Pizza Express restaurant.

After receiving our bill of $100 for a pizza dinner (yes, London is expensive) we pay for it like all Londoners do: via a handheld device brought to our table by our server. I always wondered why this type of mobile payment technology isn't more widespread here in the U.S. Well, I can wonder no more. It's here. And it's just one little technology that's going to change millions of small businesses.

The device I used is made by Ziosk. "Ziosk is currently servicing about 5 million guests per month. Over the next 12 months. we will service 100 million guests and in the next 24 months we will be servicing 100 million guests per month." This is per John Regal, the company's chief marketing officer. By using the Ziosk's 7-in. touch screen, guests can check into Facebook or the restaurant's loyalty program, view the menu, order food and drinks, play games, read the news, view movie trailers and pay their check. And unlike my family's beloved Pizza Express in London, a server doesn't have to bring the device to the table - it's there to play with for the entire meal.

The company, which currently employs 48 people, is in the process of raising $10 million from private investors and is focusing on the casual dining industry. According to Regal, there are 168,000 of these restaurants in the U.S. and they serve over 20 billion meals per year.

Why not create a smartphone or tablet app for your customers instead? Ziosk is more secure, costs a lot less than building your own application and...is more fun. "Future applications will enable guests to interact with the Ziosk via their mobile phone, for example, using it as a game controller," says Regal. "Or, if the guest has an NFC (near field communications) enabled phone, they can tap the Ziosk to pay for their meal or to receive special offers to be added to their e-wallet."

Any business with a point-of-sale system, which pretty much means any small business in the retail or restaurant industry, will be using devices like the ones made by Ziosk within the next few years.

Of course, it would be a lot easier if their data was accurate and stored in one place too. This is also happening. Quietly, a little company called Locu has built up a database of over half a million businesses in the restaurant industry. And now they're turning to other small businesses like nail salons and beauty shops and spas. Your business might already be in their database. Should you care? According to the company, you should.

"Maybe your menu changes daily or weekly, or maybe you have soup or sandwich of the day, or maybe you find out at the very last minute that there won't be any tomatoes for your famous marinara-what do you do? Call your Webmaster? Manually update your menu? Then post your changes online site by site? With Locu, you use your online dashboard to make changes simply and quickly. It's all in one place and it's super easy to use."

TechCrunch reported that the company recently debuted programming tools which will allow developers to pull in menu, pricing and hours of operation information from local restaurants into their applications. Already "several hundred companies" are now using these tools, including a "few big-name partners."

Why am I excited about Locu? Say you're running a restaurant and want to change your menu. Or offer a special happy hour. Or say you own a pharmacy or a nail salon or a gas station or a pizza shop and you want to add a new item, change a price, announce a contest or start a new delivery service.

Instead of figuring out how to do this on your own, you update Locu's database. Instead of your own tangled chaos of data stored in a spreadsheet/website/database created for you by that high school kid last summer you now have a single, uniform, consistent repository of data that will then be familiar to a network of programmers. With so many small businesses trying to figure out how to use the web and social media to attract new customers and grow, Locu (at least in my opinion), has figured out the answer: provide a single database of pertinent information that the customer needs and make sure it's accurate. Then open it up for smart programmers (like the people at Ziosk maybe?) to access and build custom applications.

We're just starting to use the cloud. Except it's a mess. Because there's not just one "cloud." There's millions of little databases and websites stored throughout the cloud. Companies like Locu are beginning to bring all this data together for good, low-cost use.

And what about the countless small businesses that use photography to sell their products and services? Landscapers proudly take photos of their jobs to display to their customers. Roofers and contractors often take before-and-after pictures to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work. Many of us use our cameras to take snap shots of our employees, our offices, ourselves in action and we're using these photos on our websites, brochures and other marketing materials.

Well, that's all about to change. A new camera is hitting the stores shortly. It's called Lytro and it uses light field technology. At $399, the Lytro camera is the first consumer camera to capture the entire light field. No other conventional camera does that today. So, why should you care? According to the company, when you capture all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space, you can do some pretty cool things like focusing a picture after you take it and creating interactive, living pictures. When you share those living pictures online, your friends, family members or customers can refocus them too, right in Facebook, in Twitter or on a blog or website. These living pictures are highly engaging, fun to share and easy to create. And it's a whole new way for your customers to engage with your business.

How will businesses benefit? "Simple," says the company's Vice President of Marketing Kira Wampler. "Business owners who want to create interactive content to engage customers, prospects and fans online will enjoy using the Lytro camera. We've seen bakeries create re-focusable cupcake pictures and aquarium aficionados take amazing fish shots. Beyond small business, there are many industrial, commercial and scientific applications for light field technology." Light field technology, in my opinion, will be a game changer for how we show our products and services to our customers and enable them to interact with our companies differently.

Keep an eye on Lytro. And Locu. And Ziosk. You've probably never heard of them before. But these are three little technologies that may have a big impact on your business.

Gene Marks
Gene Marks, a columnist, author, and business owner, writes monthly online management and technology columns for Forbes and Business Week and a bi-weekly column that appears nationally in American City Business Journals. His books include Gene\'s books include the #1 Amazon Small Business Best Seller The Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists (Adams Media), The Small Business Desk Reference (Alpha Books, 2004), Outfoxing The Small Business Owner - Crafty Techniques for Creating a Profitable Relationship (Adams Media, 2005) and The Complete Idiot\'s Guide To Successful Outsourcing (Alpha Books, 2005).

He owns and operates the Marks Group PC, a ten-person firm that provides technology and consulting services to small and medium-sized businesses. Before starting the Marks Group, Marks spent nine years in the entrepreneurial services arm of the international consulting firm KPMG in
Philadelphia where he was a senior manager.
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