Amazon Go, the cashier-less convenience store that uses sensors and AI to automatically track and ring up purchases, set off a surge of interest when it was teased in 2016 and finally opened in Seattle this past January. But the idea of automated checkout goes back well before Amazon Go’s launch. As the accuracy of computer vision has taken off in the past few years, turning checkout over to cameras and AI has become the focus of several startups.
“As soon as I stepped in the store, I saw the lines, and I knew there was no way I was going to go in for one item,” says entrepreneur Krishna Motukuri, recalling an aborted 2014 trip to Trader Joe’s to pick up milk. “That got me thinking, there’s gotta be a better way.” Motukuri actually worked at Amazon from 1999 to 2006, in supply chain systems and product search. (He declines to say whether anything like the Amazon Go model was discussed when he worked there.)
In 2014, Motukuri teamed up with his college buddy Motilal Agrawal, who has a PhD in computer vision, to develop a product-tracking technology company. Taking several twists and turns, their efforts led to the automated store venture they just recently christened as Zippin.
Motukuri and I are sitting at a plain table in the back of a gutted retail space at Howard and Fremont streets in the East Cut neighborhood of San Francisco, two blocks from the giant new Salesforce Tower. At another table, closer to the front, Agrawal and his team of coders are hunched over their work. And at the very front, hidden from the street behind blanked-out windows and sheets of Styrofoam, is a very mini mart: a few shelves holding snacks and two coolers loaded with drinks, salads, and other grab-and-go fare.
With it, San Francisco gets its first automated checkout market, which will expand up to nearly 500 square feet to become a full-sized cashier-free convenience store in the coming months, says Motukuri. Not only a first for San Francisco, Zippin–as far as we can tell–is the first Amazon Go rival to open to the public anywhere.