Here’s a story from Design Boom about new “virtual grocery stores” that are opening in subway stations / on subway platforms in Korea. The way the grocery stores work is that they show images of grocery store aisles. When you see a product you like, you can scan a QR code (a fancy type of barcode) and it’s added to your shopping cart. When you’re done shopping, all the items you purchased are delivered to your home the next day.

The idea of using a screen to substitute for physical goods is an interesting one. How far can you go, and in how many contexts can you do this?

For example, I have often considered taking pictures of the spines of all my books, and then displaying those continuously on an LCD monitor, and putting my books away somewhere. It would save space, and remind me of the books I’ve read just the same (which is, for me, a major purpose of keeping the books in the open at all, since I don’t refer to 95% of them). Arguably, it would cause me to go back to books I’ve already read more often, because I could put my “bookshelves” in a high-traffic area of the house, like my desk.

If screens as substitutes for physical aisles or physical goods were to become widespread - and it’s already happening with books - you could generally start using representations of physical objects instead of the objects themselves, especially where the delivery of the item can be delayed slightly.

Here, that’s done on a subway platform. And actually, amazingly, you can see that the train doors are in between the shelves. But there’s no reason you couldn’t apply this technology to actual retail stores. Imagine a Trader Joe’s where there are no boxed products, but instead enormous screens up and down every aisle where the products would be.

You could stock more products, since (a) shelf space could be continuously optimized, and (b) you wouldn’t have to make room for goods (or carts) on the sales floor. Your goods could then be delivered to you the next day, as with this example, or you could even pick them up from an adjacent warehouse where they’re stored more efficiently. (Interestingly, if you look carefully at the example, you can actually see that they still have several cartons of milk lined up side by side. Why do this if you aren’t physically stocking the item?)

Doing this would offer lots of other advantages as well. As I mentioned, shelf space could be continuously optimized so that the most popular products are the easiest to find, or to maximize revenue. You could also have a list of “hyperlinks” to related products when someone buys something. Once you scan milk, maybe the store flashes up some cookies for you to buy.

Obviously out-of-stock problems disappear or are dramatically mitigated. You could also have much more efficient shopping by leading customers to the products they’re interested in quickly. Promotions, such as discounts and coupons, could be pushed to shoppers instantly; you could run a sale on lemonade once the temperature reaches 90 degrees, for example, offer pre-sales on a product that hasn’t been shipped yet, or produce items that would be impossible now (“World Series Champs edition” products for shoppers in a city with a winning baseball team that can be marketed instantly while demand still exists).

More distantly, I wonder if this could be the beginning of a “physical cloud” for objects instead of data. In a cramped or confined space, could you store objects at some warehouse and have them accessible on demand? This seems like it’d be very helpful in places like South Korea where transportation infrastructure is good, everything is close together, and living space in cities is at a premium.