The man in the hat ducks into a doorway and you follow. As you take in the dimensions of a strange, triangular room, your friend streams past and starts rooting through century-old cabinets while a cohort of strangers begins to unpack ancient boxes in search of the secret formula. Hat-man decides you've seen enough and switches you onto a moving train and from there to face an imposing vault door, where each of your new-found, digitally depicted friends steps forward to attempt to crack the code.
'Protecting the Secret' - part of 'The Vault of the Secret Formula' exhibit at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta - is a 16ft-wide group-gaming environment featuring large-scale projection, sound design and Microsoft Kinect depth-sensing cameras. This is what future consumer-brand interactions will look like - technology harnessed to break down the remaining barriers between the physical and the digital, the individual and the collective, commerce and storytelling, to provide an experience that is, at once, all of these things.
We are at the start of a paradigm shift with regard to the integrated experience - a relationship between brand and consumer that is akin to a 'sixth sense' through the fusing of data, context and technology. An individual may choose how and where they interact, through which media, and what information they care to share. A brand, for its part, will meet the individual with an interactive, non-linear narrative that is relevant to the person's chosen time, place and channel.
This sixth-sense integrated experience differs from past interactions between brands and consumers in interesting ways: the store has historically been a uniform experience, delivered to many, while remote shopping has been an isolated and individual experience defined by the technology of the day - improved roads and transportation, catalogues, telephones, internet shopping and logistics. While store and remote-shopping experiences can and do co-exist, with shared brand characteristics tying them together, the nature of the experiences are distinct from the consumer's perspective. It is why we witness their non-linear, mazey trails as they construct their own ideal paths to purchase.
What's happening now, and next, is that experiences are collapsing into one as the channels that defined them become blurred in the hands of the omnichannel consumer. Consider the person who carries a device they use concurrently to communicate, research and transact; a consumer who may begin a purchase by taking a picture of an item a friend is wearing, feed it through their social network, research stockists and prices online and visit the store to complete the purchase.
How can brands meet a consumer like this, whose enhanced digital experiences have raised their expectations of what should happen in-store?
The first part of the answer lies in data - connecting our own intelligent business data with customers' personal data to provide the engine for this sixth sense.
Iota Partners, part of the SapientNitro family, is doing extraordinary work mining data from the Internet of Things to discover how different consumers interact with their environments and the products within them. By placing sensors both in stores and in products, Iota unlocks a granular layer of information that helps brands and retailers change their business and personalise experiences for their customers.
The ability to sense movement, gesture, posture and interaction allows retailers to track the paths different consumer types take through their stores, and to create heat maps that reveal precise trip patterns, areas with highest dwell times, and the nature of interactions with store items.
Overlaying this information with physical data - location-based technology that tells us who and, at a precise point in time and space, where the customer is - allows us to create experiences of the kind that Second Story, a SapientNitro company, has done with 'The Vault of the Secret Formula'.
So it is that the truly responsive physical environment becomes possible and brands are able to surprise and delight omnichannel consumers by 'storyscaping' - creating non-linear brand narratives that can be told or experienced, or both.
A changing room can become an interactive environment that responds intuitively both to the items taken into it and the data of the individual who enters - its mirrors becoming a personal shopping assistant that is an expert both on the customer's preference and product range to deliver a valuable and profitable shopping experience.
A display can storyscape to a bespoke degree - providing information and entertainment around brand or provenance in a way that is relevant to the individual customer and in proximity to the physical product.
Integrated experiences such as these will become the standard for forward-thinking businesses of the future - closing the gap between the uniform store experience and efficient, but isolated, experience that online provides. They are the reason that, despite all the attention and excitement surrounding the meteoric rise of ecommerce, stores are poised to make a comeback in a huge, digitally convergent way.
Nigel Vaz is European managing director, SapientNitro