News | November 9, 2011

How Steve Jobs Inspired Loss Prevention Technology


By Malay Kundu, founder and CEO, StopLift Checkout Vision Systems

I'm no Apple groupie, but I am an inventor and entrepreneur — and I was deeply saddened to hear of Steve Job's passing. I am now realizing how much Steve Jobs, perhaps more than anyone else, helped define the archetype of the tech entrepreneur. Perhaps it is no coincidence that my first company got started in the upstairs room of my co-founder's parent's garage. Nor that I decided to work at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) where Jobs famously took the tour where he saw the first prototypes of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) — mouse, icons, and all — which he later brought to the rest of the world through the Mac.

Thinking of the full solution of the GUI is one of the greatest things Steve Jobs ever did. Importantly, he realized that the mouse was the key to the GUI. Moreover, he realized that an affordable mouse was part of the equation, so he had it redesigned so that it could be manufactured for $15 or less. Whereas the very first mouse had three buttons — which I had the privilege to see firsthand at Xerox PARC with "copy", "cut" and "paste" written on scraps of paper still taped to the buttons — Jobs worked to simplify it to merely one button. He had an innate sense that to make things accessible, they had to be simple and unintimidating — although not necessarily unsophisticated. He knew that things needed to provide a solution, not just be another tool.

Later, he applied this same type of thinking toward simplicity to design a user interface for the iPhone that was touch driven. Now this is an interesting point. Unlike what many people might believe, Steve Jobs and Apple did not actually invent the smart phone. Nor did they invent the touch screen phone. In fact, I had an HTC touch screen smart phone as much as maybe two years before the introduction of the iPhone. Although it had a stylus, it also had a touch screen for dialing and such. But it sucked! It was pretty much a Microsoft Windows mini-desktop-like interface — dropdown menus and all — that you had to navigate on a small screen with either a stylus or your fingernails. Steve Jobs realized that you should not have to depend on a stylus, and that you should let your fingers do the walking. And so he designed an interface based on finger-sized touchable buttons — square shaped as opposed to horizontal lines of characters on a dropdown menu. Now it seems obvious in retrospect, but the best inventions often do.

For StopLift, our closest analog would be the use of the bull's-eye target. Our retailer-focused video analytics technology continuously analyzes all the video at every checkout and, in the process, identifies actual "smoking gun" incidents of inventory shrinkage at the checkout — most notably, sweethearting/scan-avoidance and other types of loss that can only be detected visually. One of the challenges we found, however, was how to clearly convey to the user exactly what our system noticed in the midst of a scene with lots of activity happening all around.

Initially, we simply flashed the word "incident" on the screen, but then we would hear from confused investigators who sometimes missed the very incident that we were so proud that our groundbreaking system could catch. SO, instead, we added a simple red bull's-eye target that flies onto the screen and distinctly points out the item of interest so that the investigator can clearly keep an eye on it and see that it was not scanned by the cashier during the transaction. No matter how subtle the action of the cashier, our bull's-eye indicator is anything but subtle and makes sure that the investigator can see it.

At StopLift, even long before his passing, we often found ourselves talking about Steve Jobs and Apple. How would Apple versus Microsoft versus Google approach this? Do we focus on being simple to use, full of features, or a hybrid? But to boil Apple's ethos down to "simple to use" does not do the company justice. At the end of the day, what Apple really stands for is "enjoyable to use". Its products make you happy to use them. Like the first time you played with a mouse on the original Mac and opened a file simply by clicking on its icon. Or the first time you played with an iPhone flicking left and right through the screens to find and launch your favorite app. Or, in our world of loss prevention, the first time you clicked on a video-analytics-extracted transaction to be treated to video of the precise moment of authentic cashier sweethearting / scan avoidance.

Making people happy by truly giving them a solution, not a just another tool, and giving them exactly what they want on a silver platter. That's how Steve Jobs, and tech innovators like ourselves who follow humbly in his footsteps, hit the bull's-eye.

Malay Kundu is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School, a holder of several patents, and the founder and CEO of StopLift Checkout Vision Systems. He launched his first startup at age 26.