US20170178082A1 - Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus - Google Patents

Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus Download PDF

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Publication number
US20170178082A1
US20170178082A1 US15/447,202 US201715447202A US2017178082A1 US 20170178082 A1 US20170178082 A1 US 20170178082A1 US 201715447202 A US201715447202 A US 201715447202A US 2017178082 A1 US2017178082 A1 US 2017178082A1
Authority
US
United States
Prior art keywords
user
motorized transport
computer system
central computer
transport units
Prior art date
Legal status (The legal status is an assumption and is not a legal conclusion. Google has not performed a legal analysis and makes no representation as to the accuracy of the status listed.)
Pending
Application number
US15/447,202
Inventor
Donald R. High
David C. Winkle
Michael D. Atchley
Current Assignee (The listed assignees may be inaccurate. Google has not performed a legal analysis and makes no representation or warranty as to the accuracy of the list.)
Walmart Apollo LLC
Original Assignee
Walmart Inc
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Filing date
Publication date
Priority to US201562129727P priority Critical
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Priority to US201562138885P priority
Priority to US201562138877P priority
Priority to US201562152610P priority
Priority to US201562152465P priority
Priority to US201562152711P priority
Priority to US201562152630P priority
Priority to US201562152667P priority
Priority to US201562152440P priority
Priority to US201562152421P priority
Priority to US201562157388P priority
Priority to US201562165586P priority
Priority to US201562165579P priority
Priority to US201562165416P priority
Priority to US201562171822P priority
Priority to US201562175182P priority
Priority to US201562182339P priority
Priority to US201562185478P priority
Priority to US201562194131P priority
Priority to US201562194127P priority
Priority to US201562194119P priority
Priority to US201562194121P priority
Priority to US201562202744P priority
Priority to US201562202747P priority
Priority to US201562205569P priority
Priority to US201562205548P priority
Priority to US201562205539P priority
Priority to US201562205555P priority
Priority to US201562207858P priority
Priority to US201562214826P priority
Priority to US201562214824P priority
Priority to US201662292084P priority
Priority to US201662302547P priority
Priority to US201662302567P priority
Priority to US201662302713P priority
Priority to US201662303021P priority
Priority to US15/061,980 priority patent/US10287149B2/en
Application filed by Walmart Inc filed Critical Walmart Inc
Priority to US15/447,202 priority patent/US20170178082A1/en
Assigned to WAL-MART STORES, INC. reassignment WAL-MART STORES, INC. ASSIGNMENT OF ASSIGNORS INTEREST (SEE DOCUMENT FOR DETAILS). Assignors: HIGH, Donald R., ATCHLEY, MICHAEL D., WINKLE, DAVID C.
Publication of US20170178082A1 publication Critical patent/US20170178082A1/en
Assigned to WALMART APOLLO, LLC reassignment WALMART APOLLO, LLC ASSIGNMENT OF ASSIGNORS INTEREST (SEE DOCUMENT FOR DETAILS). Assignors: WAL-MART STORES, INC.
Application status is Pending legal-status Critical

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Classifications

    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B66HOISTING; LIFTING; HAULING
    • B66FHOISTING, LIFTING, HAULING OR PUSHING, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR, e.g. DEVICES WHICH APPLY A LIFTING OR PUSHING FORCE DIRECTLY TO THE SURFACE OF A LOAD
    • B66F9/00Devices for lifting or lowering bulky or heavy goods for loading or unloading purposes
    • B66F9/06Devices for lifting or lowering bulky or heavy goods for loading or unloading purposes movable, with their loads, on wheels or the like, e.g. fork-lift trucks
    • B66F9/063Automatically guided
    • AHUMAN NECESSITIES
    • A47FURNITURE; DOMESTIC ARTICLES OR APPLIANCES; COFFEE MILLS; SPICE MILLS; SUCTION CLEANERS IN GENERAL
    • A47FSPECIAL FURNITURE, FITTINGS, OR ACCESSORIES FOR SHOPS, STOREHOUSES, BARS, RESTAURANTS OR THE LIKE; PAYING COUNTERS
    • A47F10/00Furniture or installations specially adapted to particular types of service systems, not otherwise provided for
    • A47F10/02Furniture or installations specially adapted to particular types of service systems, not otherwise provided for for self-service type systems, e.g. supermarkets
    • A47F10/04Furniture or installations specially adapted to particular types of service systems, not otherwise provided for for self-service type systems, e.g. supermarkets for storing or handling self-service hand-carts or baskets
    • AHUMAN NECESSITIES
    • A47FURNITURE; DOMESTIC ARTICLES OR APPLIANCES; COFFEE MILLS; SPICE MILLS; SUCTION CLEANERS IN GENERAL
    • A47FSPECIAL FURNITURE, FITTINGS, OR ACCESSORIES FOR SHOPS, STOREHOUSES, BARS, RESTAURANTS OR THE LIKE; PAYING COUNTERS
    • A47F13/00Shop or like accessories
    • AHUMAN NECESSITIES
    • A47FURNITURE; DOMESTIC ARTICLES OR APPLIANCES; COFFEE MILLS; SPICE MILLS; SUCTION CLEANERS IN GENERAL
    • A47FSPECIAL FURNITURE, FITTINGS, OR ACCESSORIES FOR SHOPS, STOREHOUSES, BARS, RESTAURANTS OR THE LIKE; PAYING COUNTERS
    • A47F3/00Show cases or show cabinets
    • A47F3/08Show cases or show cabinets with arrangements for continuously or intermittently moving the merchandise
    • AHUMAN NECESSITIES
    • A47FURNITURE; DOMESTIC ARTICLES OR APPLIANCES; COFFEE MILLS; SPICE MILLS; SUCTION CLEANERS IN GENERAL
    • A47LDOMESTIC WASHING OR CLEANING; SUCTION CLEANERS IN GENERAL
    • A47L11/00Machines for cleaning floors, carpets, furniture, walls, or wall coverings
    • A47L11/40Parts or details of machines not provided for in groups A47L11/02 - A47L11/38, or not restricted to one of these groups, e.g. handles, arrangements of switches, skirts, buffers, levers
    • A47L11/4011Regulation of the cleaning machine by electric means; Control systems and remote control systems therefor
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B07SEPARATING SOLIDS FROM SOLIDS; SORTING
    • B07CPOSTAL SORTING; SORTING INDIVIDUAL ARTICLES, OR BULK MATERIAL FIT TO BE SORTED PIECE-MEAL, e.g. BY PICKING
    • B07C5/00Sorting according to a characteristic or feature of the articles or material being sorted, e.g. by control effected by devices which detect or measure such characteristic or feature; Sorting by manually actuated devices, e.g. switches
    • B07C5/16Sorting according to weight
    • B07C5/28Sorting according to weight using electrical control means
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B07SEPARATING SOLIDS FROM SOLIDS; SORTING
    • B07CPOSTAL SORTING; SORTING INDIVIDUAL ARTICLES, OR BULK MATERIAL FIT TO BE SORTED PIECE-MEAL, e.g. BY PICKING
    • B07C5/00Sorting according to a characteristic or feature of the articles or material being sorted, e.g. by control effected by devices which detect or measure such characteristic or feature; Sorting by manually actuated devices, e.g. switches
    • B07C5/34Sorting according to other particular properties
    • B07C5/342Sorting according to other particular properties according to optical properties, e.g. colour
    • B07C5/3422Sorting according to other particular properties according to optical properties, e.g. colour using video scanning devices, e.g. TV-cameras
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B60VEHICLES IN GENERAL
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    • B60L53/30Constructional details of charging stations
    • B60L53/35Means for automatically adjusting the relative position of charging devices and vehicles
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    • B60L53/00Methods of charging batteries, specially adapted for electric vehicles; Charging stations or on-board charging equipment therefor; Exchange of energy storage elements in electric vehicles
    • B60L53/60Monitoring or controlling charging stations
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    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B60VEHICLES IN GENERAL
    • B60PVEHICLES ADAPTED FOR LOAD TRANSPORTATION OR TO TRANSPORT, TO CARRY, OR TO COMPRISE SPECIAL LOADS OR OBJECTS
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    • B60P3/06Vehicles adapted to transport, to carry or to comprise special loads or objects for carrying vehicles
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B62LAND VEHICLES FOR TRAVELLING OTHERWISE THAN ON RAILS
    • B62BHAND-PROPELLED VEHICLES, e.g. HAND CARTS, PERAMBULATORS; SLEDGES
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    • B62B5/0026Propulsion aids
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    • B62LAND VEHICLES FOR TRAVELLING OTHERWISE THAN ON RAILS
    • B62BHAND-PROPELLED VEHICLES, e.g. HAND CARTS, PERAMBULATORS; SLEDGES
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    • B62B5/0069Control
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
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    • B62B5/0026Propulsion aids
    • B62B5/0069Control
    • B62B5/0076Remotely controlled
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65FGATHERING OR REMOVAL OF DOMESTIC OR LIKE REFUSE
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    • EFIXED CONSTRUCTIONS
    • E01CONSTRUCTION OF ROADS, RAILWAYS, OR BRIDGES
    • E01HSTREET CLEANING; CLEANING OF PERMANENT WAYS; CLEANING BEACHES; DISPERSING OR PREVENTING FOG IN GENERAL CLEANING STREET OR RAILWAY FURNITURE OR TUNNEL WALLS
    • E01H5/00Removing snow or ice from roads or like surfaces; Grading or roughening snow or ice
    • E01H5/04Apparatus propelled by animal or engine power; Apparatus propelled by hand with driven dislodging or conveying levelling elements, conveying pneumatically for the dislodged material
    • E01H5/06Apparatus propelled by animal or engine power; Apparatus propelled by hand with driven dislodging or conveying levelling elements, conveying pneumatically for the dislodged material dislodging essentially by non-driven elements, e.g. scraper blades, snow-plough blades, scoop blades
    • E01H5/061Apparatus propelled by animal or engine power; Apparatus propelled by hand with driven dislodging or conveying levelling elements, conveying pneumatically for the dislodged material dislodging essentially by non-driven elements, e.g. scraper blades, snow-plough blades, scoop blades by scraper blades
    • EFIXED CONSTRUCTIONS
    • E01CONSTRUCTION OF ROADS, RAILWAYS, OR BRIDGES
    • E01HSTREET CLEANING; CLEANING OF PERMANENT WAYS; CLEANING BEACHES; DISPERSING OR PREVENTING FOG IN GENERAL CLEANING STREET OR RAILWAY FURNITURE OR TUNNEL WALLS
    • E01H5/00Removing snow or ice from roads or like surfaces; Grading or roughening snow or ice
    • E01H5/12Apparatus or implements specially adapted for breaking, disintegrating, or loosening layers of ice or hard snow with or without clearing or removing ; Roughening ice or hard snow by means of tools
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    • G01CMEASURING DISTANCES, LEVELS OR BEARINGS; SURVEYING; NAVIGATION; GYROSCOPIC INSTRUMENTS; PHOTOGRAMMETRY OR VIDEOGRAMMETRY
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Abstract

An apparatus comprises a plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses and a central computer system. The central computer system includes a network interface that permits the central computer system to wirelessly communicate with the mobile apparatuses and also with at least one user interface unit. Upon receiving a request to use one of the mobile apparatuses, the central computer system assigns an available apparatuses for use by a user during a usage session. This activity can include interfacing with the user to determine one or more specifics regarding their current needs in these regards. The specifics of their needs, in turn, can provide a basis for assigning a particular apparatus from amongst a plurality of differently purposed and differently configured apparatuses.

Description

    RELATED APPLICATIONS
  • This application is a continuation of U.S. application Ser. No. 15/061,980, filed Mar. 4, 2016, Docket 8842-134155-US (608US02), which claims the benefit of each of the following U.S. Provisional applications: U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/129,726, filed Mar. 6, 2015, Docket 8842-134158-US (587US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/129,727, filed Mar. 6, 2015, Docket 8842-134268-US (615US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/138,877, filed Mar. 26, 2015, Docket 8842-134162-US (610US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/138,885, filed Mar. 26, 2015, Docket 8842-134209-US (635US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,421, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134155-US (608US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,465, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134161-US (603US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,440, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134208-US (611US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,630, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134249-US (612US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,711, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134269-US (626US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,610, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134574-US (623US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/152,667, filed Apr. 24, 2015, Docket 8842-134575-US (663US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/157,388, filed May 5, 2015, Docket 8842-134573-US (606US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/165,579, filed May 22, 2015, Docket 8842-134576-US (677US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/165,416, filed May 22, 2015, Docket 8842-134589-US (624US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/165,586, filed May 22, 2015, Docket 8842-134945-US (732US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/171,822, filed Jun. 5, 2015, Docket 8842-134250-US (621US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/175,182, filed Jun. 12, 2015, Docket 8842-135963-US (726US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/182,339, filed Jun. 19, 2015, Docket 8842-135961-US (749US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/185,478, filed Jun. 26, 2015, Docket 8842-136023-US (742US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/194,131, filed Jul. 17, 2015, Docket 8842-135962-US (739US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/194,119, filed Jul. 17, 2015, Docket 8842-136020-US (728US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/194,121, filed Jul. 17, 2015, Docket 8842-136022-US (740US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/194,127, filed Jul. 17, 2015, Docket 8842-136024-US (743US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/202,744, filed Aug. 7, 2015, Docket 8842-135956-US (764US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/202,747, filed Aug. 7, 2015, Docket 8842-136021-US (734US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/205,548, filed Aug. 14, 2015, Docket 8842-135959-US (751US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/205,569, filed Aug. 14, 2015, Docket 8842-136123-US (680US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/205,555, filed Aug. 14, 2015, Docket 8842-136124-US (741US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/205,539, filed Aug. 14, 2015, Docket 8842-136651-US (919US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/207,858, filed Aug. 20, 2015, Docket 8842-136508-US (854US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/214,826, filed Sep. 4, 2015, Docket 8842-136026-US (746US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/214,824, filed Sep. 4, 2015, Docket 8842-136025-US (744US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/292,084, filed Feb. 5, 2016, Docket 8842-137833-US (925US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/302,547, filed Mar. 2, 2016, Docket 8842-136125-US (748US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/302,567, filed Mar. 2, 2016, Docket 8842-138040-US (731US01); U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/302,713, filed Mar. 2, 2016, Docket 8842-137834-US (932US01); and U.S. Provisional Application No. 62/303,021, filed Mar. 3, 2016, Docket 8842-137831-US (636US01), all of these applications being incorporated herein by reference in their entirety.
  • TECHNICAL FIELD
  • These teachings relate generally to shopping environments and more particularly to devices, systems and methods for assisting customers and/or workers in those shopping environments.
  • BACKGROUND
  • In a modern retail store environment, there is a need to improve the customer experience and/or convenience for the customer. Whether shopping in a large format (big box) store or smaller format (neighborhood) store, customers often require assistance that employees of the store are not always able to provide. For example, particularly during peak hours, there may not be enough employees available to assist customers such that customer questions go unanswered. Additionally, due to high employee turnover rates, available employees may not be fully trained or have access to information to adequately support customers. Other routine tasks also are difficult to keep up with, particularly during peak hours. For example, shopping carts are left abandoned, aisles become messy, inventory is not displayed in the proper locations or is not even placed on the sales floor, shelf prices may not be properly set, and theft is hard to discourage. All of these issues can result in low customer satisfaction or reduced convenience to the customer. With increasing competition from non-traditional shopping mechanisms, such as online shopping provided by e-commerce merchants and alternative store formats, it can be important for “brick and mortar” retailers to focus on improving the overall customer experience and/or convenience.
  • While offering great convenience in the form of one-stop shopping, such stores can also be at least mildly confusing to some consumers due in large part to the very size of the facility and the plethora of items being offered. That wide variety of items can also present a corresponding issue for some consumers in the form of a shopping cart that becomes so filled with various items that pushing and navigating the cart becomes potentially challenging.
  • Motorized shopping carts are known and typically comprise a shopping cart having an electric motor to power one or more wheels and navigational controls to permit the user to steer the cart. Motorized shopping carts typically include a seat and have a rechargeable battery that can be charged during periods of non-usage. These devices are typically provided to serve persons with permanent or temporary physical disabilities who may have difficulty walking through a large store or pushing a regular cart.
  • Though certainly useful, existing approaches in these regards do not address all needs of all potential users.
  • BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
  • The above needs are at least partially met through provision of the approaches described in the following detailed description as regards assigning a motorized personal assistance apparatus, particularly when studied in conjunction with the drawings, wherein:
  • FIG. 1 comprises a block diagram of a shopping assistance system as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIGS. 2A and 2B are illustrations of a motorized transport unit of the system of FIG. 1 in a retracted orientation and an extended orientation in accordance with some embodiments;
  • FIGS. 3A and 3B are illustrations of the motorized transport unit of FIGS. 2A and 2B detachably coupling to a movable item container, such as a shopping cart, in accordance with some embodiments;
  • FIG. 4 comprises a block diagram of a motorized transport unit as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 5 comprises a block diagram of a computer device as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 6 comprises a flow diagram as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 7 comprises a flow diagram as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 8 comprises a screen shot as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 9 comprises a flow diagram as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings;
  • FIG. 10 comprises a blow diagram as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings; and
  • FIG. 11 comprises a flow diagram as configured in accordance with various embodiments of these teachings.
  • Elements in the figures are illustrated for simplicity and clarity and have not necessarily been drawn to scale. For example, the dimensions and/or relative positioning of some of the elements in the figures may be exaggerated relative to other elements to help to improve understanding of various embodiments of the present teachings. Also, common but well-understood elements that are useful or necessary in a commercially feasible embodiment are often not depicted in order to facilitate a less obstructed view of these various embodiments of the present teachings. Certain actions and/or steps may be described or depicted in a particular order of occurrence while those skilled in the art will understand that such specificity with respect to sequence is not actually required. The terms and expressions used herein have the ordinary technical meaning as is accorded to such terms and expressions by persons skilled in the technical field as set forth above except where different specific meanings have otherwise been set forth herein.
  • DETAILED DESCRIPTION
  • The following description is not to be taken in a limiting sense, but is made merely for the purpose of describing the general principles of exemplary embodiments. Reference throughout this specification to “one embodiment,” “an embodiment,” or similar language means that a particular feature, structure, or characteristic described in connection with the embodiment is included in at least one embodiment of the present invention. Thus, appearances of the phrases “in one embodiment,” “in an embodiment,” and similar language throughout this specification may, but do not necessarily, all refer to the same embodiment.
  • Generally speaking, pursuant to various embodiments, systems, devices and methods are provided for assistance of persons at a shopping facility. Generally, assistance may be provided to customers or shoppers at the facility and/or to workers at the facility. The facility may be any type of shopping facility at a location in which products for display and/or for sale are variously distributed throughout the shopping facility space. The shopping facility may be a retail sales facility, or any other type of facility in which products are displayed and/or sold. The shopping facility may include one or more of sales floor areas, checkout locations, parking locations, entrance and exit areas, stock room areas, stock receiving areas, hallway areas, common areas shared by merchants, and so on. Generally, a shopping facility includes areas that may be dynamic in terms of the physical structures occupying the space or area and objects, items, machinery and/or persons moving in the area. For example, the shopping area may include product storage units, shelves, racks, modules, bins, etc., and other walls, dividers, partitions, etc. that may be configured in different layouts or physical arrangements. In other example, persons or other movable objects may be freely and independently traveling through the shopping facility space. And in other example, the persons or movable objects move according to known travel patterns and timing. The facility may be any size of format facility, and may include products from one or more merchants. For example, a facility may be a single store operated by one merchant or may be a collection of stores covering multiple merchants such as a mall.
  • Generally, the system makes use of automated, robotic mobile devices, e.g., motorized transport units, that are capable of self-powered movement through a space of the shopping facility and providing any number of functions. Movement and operation of such devices may be controlled by a central computer system or may be autonomously controlled by the motorized transport units themselves. Various embodiments provide one or more user interfaces to allow various users to interact with the system including the automated mobile devices and/or to directly interact with the automated mobile devices. In some embodiments, the automated mobile devices and the corresponding system serve to enhance a customer shopping experience in the shopping facility, e.g., by assisting shoppers and/or workers at the facility.
  • Generally speaking, pursuant to these various embodiments, an apparatus comprises a plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses and a central computer system. By one approach the central computer system includes a network interface that permits the central computer system to wirelessly communicate with the plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses and also with at least one user interface unit.
  • The central computer system is configured to receive a request from a user (via the at least one user interface unit referred to above) to use one of the plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses. In response to receiving such a request, the central computer system assigns an available one of the plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses for use by that user during a usage session.
  • By one approach that assignment includes, at least in part, wirelessly transmitting to the user via the user interface unit a globally unique session token that uniquely corresponds to the usage session. If desired, the user interface unit then employs that globally unique session token as an encryption key for at least some wireless communications during at least part of the aforementioned usage session. This can include communications with the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and/or with the central computer system as desired.
  • By another approach, in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, the central computer system is further configured to use that globally unique session token to log tracking information of the user's use of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus during the usage session. That tracking information can include, for example, information regarding activity of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and/or activity of the user.
  • These teachings are highly flexible in practice and will accommodate a variety of modifications or approaches as regards the foregoing. For example, the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses may integrally include an item container or may, if desired, comprise a motorized transport device that automatically connects, when assigned by the central computer system, to a movable item container such that the motorized transport device will move the motorized item container to a location of convenience as corresponds to the user during the usage session such that the user can readily place a selected item into the movable item container to facilitate purchasing the selected item.
  • By one approach the aforementioned user interface unit can comprise, for example, a smart phone or a pad/tablet-styled computer as are known in the art. These teachings will accommodate the user interface unit being mounted to a movable item container (such as a shopping cart) or the user interface unit comprising a user-possessed personally-portable two-way communications unit.
  • As another example of the flexibility of these teachings, by one approach, when assigning an available motorized mobile retail facility personal assistant apparatuses, the central computer system can also wirelessly transmit to the user interface unit a temporary N-digit code (where “N” is a non-zero integer). In such a case, the user interface unit can be configured to display that code and to provide the user with an opportunity to themselves enter that code into the user interface unit. The central computer system can be configured to determine whether the user interface unit returns that correctly-entered code within a pre-determined period of time. When the code is returned within that pre-determined period of time, the central computer system can then begin the usage session as corresponds to the assignment of the particular motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to this user. When, however, the pre-determined period of time expires with the user having failed to enter the temporary N-digit code into the user interface unit, the central computer system can withdraw the assignment of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus for use by this particular user.
  • If desired, before assigning a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to a particular user, the central computer system can be configured to assess the user's request. This assessment can include, for example, determining whether the user is personally barred from being assigned a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus (such barring being based, for example, upon prior misuse of such an apparatus). As another example, this assessment can be based, at least in part, upon a present physical location of the user.
  • It is possible that an assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus will be unable to complete a usage session for a particular user. As one simple example, the device's rechargeable power source may be too depleted to complete the assignment. Accordingly, if desired, the central computer system can be configured to arrange to transfer, during a usage session, the assignment of a replacement motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus for use by the user. Such a transfer can include, for example, transferring the aforementioned globally unique session token to the replacement motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus.
  • It is also possible that a user will attempt to enter an area of the store that is off limits to unauthorized persons (such as a back stock room). If desired, the central computer system can be configured to terminate a usage session when the user enters an area that is off-limits to thereby at least prevent the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus from entering the off-limits area.
  • By one approach, in lieu of much of the foregoing or in combination therewith, these teachings will accommodate interfacing with a user to ascertain specific needs of the user to thereby facilitate tasking a particular one of a plurality of motorized transport units from amongst a plurality of differently purposed and differently physically configured motorized transport units to assist the user during their visit to the retail shopping facility. Different motorized transport units may be differently purposed/configured, for example, to serve as disability mobility platforms, grocery carts, pallets, and child-carrying platforms, to note but a few examples in these regards.
  • These teachings provide an effective and efficient way to ensure an appropriate assignment of a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to a given user. By one approach the assignment process is fully automated with the exception of specific actions that are appropriately taken by the user. Providing an effective assignment mechanism, in turn, can help to avoid confusion, misuse, mistakes, and other undesired results.
  • These and other benefits may become clearer upon making a thorough review and study of the following detailed description. Referring now to the drawings, FIG. 1 illustrates embodiments of a shopping facility assistance system 100 that can serve to carry out at least some of the teachings set forth herein. It will be understood that the details of this example are intended to serve in an illustrative capacity and are not necessarily intended to suggest any limitations as regards the present teachings. It is noted that generally, FIGS. 1-5 describe the general functionality of several embodiments of a system, and FIGS. 6-8 expand on some functionalities of some embodiments of the system and/or embodiments independent of such systems.
  • In the example of FIG. 1, a shopping assistance system 100 is implemented in whole or in part at a shopping facility 101. Generally, the system 100 includes one or more motorized transport units (MTUs) 102; one or more item containers 104; a central computer system 106 having at least one control circuit 108, at least one memory 110 and at least one network interface 112; at least one user interface unit 114; a location determination system 116; at least one video camera 118; at least one motorized transport unit (MTU) dispenser 120; at least one motorized transport unit (MTU) docking station 122; at least one wireless network 124; at least one database 126; at least one user interface computer device 128; an item display module 130; and a locker or an item storage unit 132. It is understood that more or fewer of such components may be included in different embodiments of the system 100.
  • These motorized transport units 102 are located in the shopping facility 101 and are configured to move throughout the shopping facility space. Further details regarding such motorized transport units 102 appear further below. Generally speaking, these motorized transport units 102 are configured to either comprise, or to selectively couple to, a corresponding movable item container 104. A simple example of an item container 104 would be a shopping cart as one typically finds at many retail facilities, or a rocket cart, a flatbed cart or any other mobile basket or platform that may be used to gather items for potential purchase.
  • In some embodiments, these motorized transport units 102 wirelessly communicate with, and are wholly or largely controlled by, the central computer system 106. In particular, in some embodiments, the central computer system 106 is configured to control movement of the motorized transport units 102 through the shopping facility space based on a variety of inputs. For example, the central computer system 106 communicates with each motorized transport unit 102 via the wireless network 124 which may be one or more wireless networks of one or more wireless network types (such as, a wireless local area network, a wireless personal area network, a wireless mesh network, a wireless star network, a wireless wide area network, a cellular network, and so on), capable of providing wireless coverage of the desired range of the motorized transport units 102 according to any known wireless protocols, including but not limited to a cellular, Wi-Fi, Zigbee or Bluetooth network.
  • By one approach the central computer system 106 is a computer based device and includes at least one control circuit 108, at least one memory 110 and at least one wired and/or wireless network interface 112. Such a control circuit 108 can comprise a fixed-purpose hard-wired platform or can comprise a partially or wholly programmable platform, such as a microcontroller, an application specification integrated circuit, a field programmable gate array, and so on. These architectural options are well known and understood in the art and require no further description here. This control circuit 108 is configured (for example, by using corresponding programming stored in the memory 110 as will be well understood by those skilled in the art) to carry out one or more of the steps, actions, and/or functions described herein.
  • In this illustrative example the control circuit 108 operably couples to one or more memories 110. The memory 110 may be integral to the control circuit 108 or can be physically discrete (in whole or in part) from the control circuit 108 as desired. This memory 110 can also be local with respect to the control circuit 108 (where, for example, both share a common circuit board, chassis, power supply, and/or housing) or can be partially or wholly remote with respect to the control circuit 108 (where, for example, the memory 110 is physically located in another facility, metropolitan area, or even country as compared to the control circuit 108).
  • This memory 110 can serve, for example, to non-transitorily store the computer instructions that, when executed by the control circuit 108, cause the control circuit 108 to behave as described herein. (As used herein, this reference to “non-transitorily” will be understood to refer to a non-ephemeral state for the stored contents (and hence excludes when the stored contents merely constitute signals or waves) rather than volatility of the storage media itself and hence includes both non-volatile memory (such as read-only memory (ROM) as well as volatile memory (such as an erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM).)
  • Additionally, at least one database 126 may be accessible by the central computer system 106. Such databases may be integrated into the central computer system 106 or separate from it. Such databases may be at the location of the shopping facility 101 or remote from the shopping facility 101. Regardless of location, the databases comprise memory to store and organize certain data for use by the central control system 106. In some embodiments, the at least one database 126 may store data pertaining to one or more of: shopping facility mapping data, customer data, customer shopping data and patterns, inventory data, product pricing data, and so on.
  • In this illustrative example, the central computer system 106 also wirelessly communicates with a plurality of user interface units 114. These teachings will accommodate a variety of user interface units including, but not limited to, mobile and/or handheld electronic devices such as so-called smart phones and portable computers such as tablet/pad-styled computers. Generally speaking, these user interface units 114 should be able to wirelessly communicate with the central computer system 106 via a wireless network, such as the wireless network 124 of the shopping facility 101 (such as a Wi-Fi wireless network). These user interface units 114 generally provide a user interface for interaction with the system. In some embodiments, a given motorized transport unit 102 is paired with, associated with, assigned to or otherwise made to correspond with a given user interface unit 114. In some embodiments, these user interface units 114 should also be able to receive verbally-expressed input from a user and forward that content to the central computer system 106 or a motorized transport unit 102 and/or convert that verbally-expressed input into a form useful to the central computer system 106 or a motorized transport unit 102.
  • By one approach at least some of the user interface units 114 belong to corresponding customers who have come to the shopping facility 101 to shop. By another approach, in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, at least some of the user interface units 114 belong to the shopping facility 101 and are loaned to individual customers to employ as described herein. In some embodiments, one or more user interface units 114 are attachable to a given movable item container 104 or are integrated with the movable item container 104. Similarly, in some embodiments, one or more user interface units 114 may be those of shopping facility workers, belong to the shopping facility 101 and are loaned to the workers, or a combination thereof.
  • In some embodiments, the user interface units 114 may be general purpose computer devices that include computer programming code to allow it to interact with the system 106. For example, such programming may be in the form of an application installed on the user interface unit 114 or in the form of a browser that displays a user interface provided by the central computer system 106 or other remote computer or server (such as a web server). In some embodiments, one or more user interface units 114 may be special purpose devices that are programmed to primarily function as a user interface for the system 100. Depending on the functionality and use case, user interface units 114 may be operated by customers of the shopping facility or may be operated by workers at the shopping facility, such as facility employees (associates or colleagues), vendors, suppliers, contractors, etc.
  • By one approach, the system 100 optionally includes one or more video cameras 118. Captured video imagery from such a video camera 118 can be provided to the central computer system 106. That information can then serve, for example, to help the central computer system 106 determine a present location of one or more of the motorized transport units 102 and/or determine issues or concerns regarding automated movement of those motorized transport units 102 in the shopping facility space. As one simple example in these regards, such video information can permit the central computer system 106, at least in part, to detect an object in a path of movement of a particular one of the motorized transport units 102.
  • By one approach these video cameras 118 comprise existing surveillance equipment employed at the shopping facility 101 to serve, for example, various security purposes. By another approach these video cameras 118 are dedicated to providing video content to the central computer system 106 to facilitate the latter's control of the motorized transport units 102. If desired, the video cameras 118 can have a selectively movable field of view and/or zoom capability that the central computer system 106 controls as appropriate to help ensure receipt of useful information at any given moment.
  • In some embodiments, a location detection system 116 is provided at the shopping facility 101. The location detection system 116 provides input to the central computer system 106 useful to help determine the location of one or more of the motorized transport units 102. In some embodiments, the location detection system 116 includes a series of light sources (e.g., LEDs (light-emitting diodes)) that are mounted in the ceiling at known positions throughout the space and that each encode data in the emitted light that identifies the source of the light (and thus, the location of the light). As a given motorized transport unit 102 moves through the space, light sensors (or light receivers) at the motorized transport unit 102, on the movable item container 104 and/or at the user interface unit 114 receive the light and can decode the data. This data is sent back to the central computer system 106 which can determine the position of the motorized transport unit 102 by the data of the light it receives, since it can relate the light data to a mapping of the light sources to locations at the facility 101. Generally, such lighting systems are known and commercially available, e.g., the ByteLight system from ByteLight of Boston, Mass. In embodiments using a ByteLight system, a typical display screen of the typical smart phone device can be used as a light sensor or light receiver to receive and process data encoded into the light from the ByteLight light sources.
  • In other embodiments, the location detection system 116 includes a series of low energy radio beacons (e.g., Bluetooth low energy beacons) at known positions throughout the space and that each encode data in the emitted radio signal that identifies the beacon (and thus, the location of the beacon). As a given motorized transport unit 102 moves through the space, low energy receivers at the motorized transport unit 102, on the movable item container 104 and/or at the user interface unit 114 receive the radio signal and can decode the data. This data is sent back to the central computer system 106 which can determine the position of the motorized transport unit 102 by the location encoded in the radio signal it receives, since it can relate the location data to a mapping of the low energy radio beacons to locations at the facility 101. Generally, such low energy radio systems are known and commercially available. In embodiments using a Bluetooth low energy radio system, a typical Bluetooth radio of a typical smart phone device can be used as a receiver to receive and process data encoded into the Bluetooth low energy radio signals from the Bluetooth low energy beacons.
  • In still other embodiments, the location detection system 116 includes a series of audio beacons at known positions throughout the space and that each encode data in the emitted audio signal that identifies the beacon (and thus, the location of the beacon). As a given motorized transport unit 102 moves through the space, microphones at the motorized transport unit 102, on the movable item container 104 and/or at the user interface unit 114 receive the audio signal and can decode the data. This data is sent back to the central computer system 106 which can determine the position of the motorized transport unit 102 by the location encoded in the audio signal it receives, since it can relate the location data to a mapping of the audio beacons to locations at the facility 101. Generally, such audio beacon systems are known and commercially available. In embodiments using an audio beacon system, a typical microphone of a typical smart phone device can be used as a receiver to receive and process data encoded into the audio signals from the audio beacon.
  • Also optionally, the central computer system 106 can operably couple to one or more user interface computers 128 (comprising, for example, a display and a user input interface such as a keyboard, touch screen, and/or cursor-movement device). Such a user interface computer 128 can permit, for example, a worker (e.g., an associate, analyst, governmental inspector, etc.) at the retail or shopping facility 101 to monitor the operations of the central computer system 106 and/or to attend to any of a variety of administrative, configuration or evaluation tasks as may correspond to the programming and operation of the central computer system 106. Such user interface computers 128 may be at or remote from the location of the facility 101 and may access one or more the databases 126.
  • In some embodiments, the system 100 includes at least one motorized transport unit (MTU) storage unit or dispenser 120 at various locations in the shopping facility 101. The dispenser 120 provides for storage of motorized transport units 102 that are ready to be assigned to customers and/or workers. In some embodiments, the dispenser 120 takes the form of a cylinder within which motorized transports units 102 are stacked and released through the bottom of the dispenser 120. Further details of such embodiments are provided further below. In some embodiments, the dispenser 120 may be fixed in location or may be mobile and capable of transporting itself to a given location or utilizing a motorized transport unit 102 to transport the dispenser 120, then dispense one or more motorized transport units 102.
  • In some embodiments, the system 100 includes at least one motorized transport unit (MTU) docking station 122. These docking stations 122 provide locations where motorized transport units 102 can travel and connect to. For example, the motorized transport units 102 may be stored and charged at the docking station 122 for later use, and/or may be serviced at the docking station 122.
  • In accordance with some embodiments, a given motorized transport unit 102 detachably connects to a movable item container 104 and is configured to move the movable item container 104 through the shopping facility space under control of the central computer system 106 and/or the user interface unit 114. For example, a motorized transport unit 102 can move to a position underneath a movable item container 104 (such as a shopping cart, a rocket cart, a flatbed cart, or any other mobile basket or platform), align itself with the movable item container 104 (e.g., using sensors) and then raise itself to engage an undersurface of the movable item container 104 and lift a portion of the movable item container 104. Once the motorized transport unit is cooperating with the movable item container 104 (e.g., lifting a portion of the movable item container), the motorized transport unit 102 can continue to move throughout the facility space 101 taking the movable item container 104 with it.
  • In some examples, the motorized transport unit 102 takes the form of the motorized transport unit 202 of FIGS. 2A-3B as it engages and detachably connects to a given movable item container 104. It is understood that in other embodiments, the motorized transport unit 102 may not lift a portion of the movable item container 104, but that it removably latches to, connects to or otherwise attaches to a portion of the movable item container 104 such that the movable item container 104 can be moved by the motorized transport unit 102. For example, the motorized transport unit 102 can connect to a given movable item container using a hook, a mating connector, a magnet, and so on.
  • In addition to detachably coupling to movable item containers 104 (such as shopping carts), in some embodiments, motorized transport units 102 can move to and engage or connect to an item display module 130 and/or an item storage unit or locker 132. For example, an item display module 130 may take the form of a mobile display rack or shelving unit configured to house and display certain items for sale. It may be desired to position the display module 130 at various locations within the shopping facility 101 at various times. Thus, one or more motorized transport units 102 may move (as controlled by the central computer system 106) underneath the item display module 130, extend upward to lift the module 130 and then move it to the desired location. A storage locker 132 may be a storage device where items for purchase are collected and placed therein for a customer and/or worker to later retrieve. In some embodiments, one or more motorized transport units 102 may be used to move the storage locker to a desired location in the shopping facility 101. Similar to how a motorized transport unit engages a movable item container 104 or item display module 130, one or more motorized transport units 102 may move (as controlled by the central computer system 106) underneath the storage locker 132, extend upward to lift the locker 132 and then move it to the desired location.
  • FIGS. 2A and 2B illustrate some embodiments of a motorized transport unit 202, similar to the motorized transport unit 102 shown in the system of FIG. 1. In this embodiment, the motorized transport unit 202 takes the form of a disc-shaped robotic device having motorized wheels (not shown), a lower body portion 204 and an upper body portion 206 that fits over at least part of the lower body portion 204. It is noted that in other embodiments, the motorized transport unit may have other shapes and/or configurations, and is not limited to disc-shaped. For example, the motorized transport unit may be cubic, octagonal, triangular, or other shapes, and may be dependent on a movable item container with which the motorized transport unit is intended to cooperate. Also included are guide members 208.
  • In FIG. 2A, the motorized transport unit 202 is shown in a retracted position in which the upper body portion 206 fits over the lower body portion 204 such that the motorized transport unit 202 is in its lowest profile orientation which is generally the preferred orientation for movement when it is unattached to a movable item container 104 for example.
  • In FIG. 2B, the motorized transport unit 202 is shown in an extended position in which the upper body portion 206 is moved upward relative to the lower body portion 204 such that the motorized transport unit 202 is in its highest profile orientation for movement when it is lifting and attaching to a movable item container 104 for example. The mechanism within the motorized transport unit 202 is designed to provide sufficient lifting force to lift the weight of the upper body portion 206 and other objects to be lifted by the motorized transport unit 202, such as movable item containers 104 and items placed within the movable item container, item display modules 130 and items supported by the item display module, and storage lockers 132 and items placed within the storage locker.
  • The guide members 208 are embodied as pegs or shafts that extend horizontally from the both the upper body portion 206 and the lower body portion 204. In some embodiments, these guide members 208 assist docking the motorized transport unit 202 to a docking station 122 or a dispenser 120.
  • In some embodiments, the lower body portion 204 and the upper body portion are capable to moving independently of each other. For example, the upper body portion 206 may be raised and/or rotated relative to the lower body portion 204. That is, one or both of the upper body portion 206 and the lower body portion 204 may move toward/away from the other or rotated relative to the other.
  • In some embodiments, in order to raise the upper body portion 206 relative to the lower body portion 204, the motorized transport unit 202 includes an internal lifting system (e.g., including one or more electric actuators or rotary drives or motors). Numerous examples of such motorized lifting and rotating systems are known in the art. Accordingly, further elaboration in these regards is not provided here for the sake of brevity.
  • FIGS. 3A and 3B illustrate some embodiments of the motorized transport unit 202 detachably engaging a movable item container embodied as a shopping cart 302. In FIG. 3A, the motorized transport unit 202 is in the orientation of FIG. 2A such that it is retracted and able to move in position underneath a portion of the shopping cart 302. Once the motorized transport unit 202 is in position (e.g., using sensors), as illustrated in FIG. 3B, the motorized transport unit 202 is moved to the extended position of FIG. 2B such that the front portion 304 of the shopping cart is lifted off of the ground by the motorized transport unit 202, with the wheels 306 at the rear of the shopping cart 302 remaining on the ground. In this orientation, the motorized transport unit 202 is able to move the shopping cart 302 throughout the shopping facility. It is noted that in these embodiments, the motorized transport unit 202 does not bear the weight of the entire cart 302 since the rear wheels 306 rest on the floor. It is understood that in some embodiments, the motorized transport unit 202 may be configured to detachably engage other types of movable item containers, such as rocket carts, flatbed carts or other mobile baskets or platforms.
  • FIG. 4 presents a more detailed example of some embodiments of the motorized transport unit 102 of FIG. 1. In this example, the motorized transport unit 102 has a housing 402 that contains (partially or fully) or at least supports and carries a number of components. These components include a control unit 404 comprising a control circuit 406 that, like the control circuit 108 of the central computer system 106, controls the general operations of the motorized transport unit 102. Accordingly, the control unit 404 also includes a memory 408 coupled to the control circuit 406 and that stores, for example, operating instructions and/or useful data.
  • The control circuit 406 operably couples to a motorized wheel system 410. This motorized wheel system 410 functions as a locomotion system to permit the motorized transport unit 102 to move within the aforementioned retail or shopping facility 101 (thus, the motorized wheel system 410 may more generically be referred to as a locomotion system). Generally speaking, this motorized wheel system 410 will include at least one drive wheel (i.e., a wheel that rotates (around a horizontal axis) under power to thereby cause the motorized transport unit 102 to move through interaction with, for example, the floor of the shopping facility 101). The motorized wheel system 410 can include any number of rotating wheels and/or other floor-contacting mechanisms as may be desired and/or appropriate to the application setting.
  • The motorized wheel system 410 also includes a steering mechanism of choice. One simple example in these regards comprises one or more of the aforementioned wheels that can swivel about a vertical axis to thereby cause the moving motorized transport unit 102 to turn as well.
  • Numerous examples of motorized wheel systems are known in the art. Accordingly, further elaboration in these regards is not provided here for the sake of brevity save to note that the aforementioned control circuit 406 is configured to control the various operating states of the motorized wheel system 410 to thereby control when and how the motorized wheel system 410 operates.
  • In this illustrative example, the control circuit 406 also operably couples to at least one wireless transceiver 412 that operates according to any known wireless protocol. This wireless transceiver 412 can comprise, for example, a Wi-Fi-compatible and/or Bluetooth-compatible transceiver that can communicate with the aforementioned central computer system 106 via the aforementioned wireless network 124 of the shopping facility 101. So configured the control circuit 406 of the motorized transport unit 102 can provide information to the central computer system 106 and can receive information and/or instructions from the central computer system 106. As one simple example in these regards, the control circuit 406 can receive instructions from the central computer system 106 regarding movement of the motorized transport unit 102.
  • These teachings will accommodate using any of a wide variety of wireless technologies as desired and/or as may be appropriate in a given application setting. These teachings will also accommodate employing two or more different wireless transceivers 412 if desired.
  • The control circuit 406 also couples to one or more on-board sensors 414. These teachings will accommodate a wide variety of sensor technologies and form factors. By one approach at least one such sensor 414 can comprise a light sensor or light receiver. When the aforementioned location detection system 116 comprises a plurality of light emitters disposed at particular locations within the shopping facility 101, such a light sensor can provide information that the control circuit 406 and/or the central computer system 106 employs to determine a present location and/or orientation of the motorized transport unit 102.
  • As another example, such a sensor 414 can comprise a distance measurement unit configured to detect a distance between the motorized transport unit 102 and one or more objects or surfaces around the motorized transport unit 102 (such as an object that lies in a projected path of movement for the motorized transport unit 102 through the shopping facility 101). These teachings will accommodate any of a variety of distance measurement units including optical units and sound/ultrasound units.
  • In one example, a sensor 414 comprises a laser distance sensor device capable of determining a distance to objects in proximity to the sensor. In some embodiments, a sensor 414 comprises an optical based scanning device to sense and read optical patterns in proximity to the sensor, such as bar codes variously located on structures in the shopping facility 101. In some embodiments, a sensor 414 comprises a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag reader capable of reading RFID tags in proximity to the sensor. Such sensors may be useful to determine proximity to nearby objects, avoid collisions, orient the motorized transport unit at a proper alignment orientation to engage a movable item container, and so on.
  • The foregoing examples are intended to be illustrative and are not intended to convey an exhaustive listing of all possible sensors. Instead, it will be understood that these teachings will accommodate sensing any of a wide variety of circumstances or phenomena to support the operating functionality of the motorized transport unit 102 in a given application setting.
  • By one optional approach an audio input 416 (such as a microphone) and/or an audio output 418 (such as a speaker) can also operably couple to the control circuit 406. So configured the control circuit 406 can provide a variety of audible sounds to thereby communicate with a user of the motorized transport unit 102, other persons in the vicinity of the motorized transport unit 102, or even other motorized transport units 102 in the area. These audible sounds can include any of a variety of tones and other non-verbal sounds. These audible sounds can also include, in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, pre-recorded or synthesized speech.
  • The audio input 416, in turn, provides a mechanism whereby, for example, a user provides verbal input to the control circuit 406. That verbal input can comprise, for example, instructions, inquiries, or information. So configured, a user can provide, for example, a question to the motorized transport unit 102 (such as, “Where are the towels?”). The control circuit 406 can cause that verbalized question to be transmitted to the central computer system 106 via the motorized transport unit's wireless transceiver 412. The central computer system 106 can process that verbal input to recognize the speech content and to then determine an appropriate response. That response might comprise, for example, transmitting back to the motorized transport unit 102 specific instructions regarding how to move the motorized transport unit 102 (via the aforementioned motorized wheel system 410) to the location in the shopping facility 101 where the towels are displayed.
  • In this example the motorized transport unit 102 includes a rechargeable power source 420 such as one or more batteries. The power provided by the rechargeable power source 420 can be made available to whichever components of the motorized transport unit 102 require electrical energy. By one approach the motorized transport unit 102 includes a plug or other electrically conductive interface that the control circuit 406 can utilize to automatically connect to an external source of electrical energy to thereby recharge the rechargeable power source 420.
  • By one approach the motorized transport unit 102 comprises an integral part of a movable item container 104 such as a grocery cart. As used herein, this reference to “integral” will be understood to refer to a non-temporary combination and joinder that is sufficiently complete so as to consider the combined elements to be as one. Such a joinder can be facilitated in a number of ways including by securing the motorized transport unit housing 402 to the item container using bolts or other threaded fasteners as versus, for example, a clip.
  • These teachings will also accommodate selectively and temporarily attaching the motorized transport unit 102 to an item container 104. In such a case the motorized transport unit 102 can include a movable item container coupling structure 422. By one approach this movable item container coupling structure 422 operably couples to a control circuit 202 to thereby permit the latter to control, for example, the latched and unlatched states of the movable item container coupling structure 422. So configured, by one approach the control circuit 406 can automatically and selectively move the motorized transport unit 102 (via the motorized wheel system 410) towards a particular item container until the movable item container coupling structure 422 can engage the item container to thereby temporarily physically couple the motorized transport unit 102 to the item container. So latched, the motorized transport unit 102 can then cause the item container to move with the motorized transport unit 102.
  • In embodiments such as illustrated in FIGS. 2A-3B, the movable item container coupling structure 422 includes a lifting system (e.g., including an electric drive or motor) to cause a portion of the body or housing 402 to engage and lift a portion of the item container off of the ground such that the motorized transport unit 102 can carry a portion of the item container. In other embodiments, the movable transport unit latches to a portion of the movable item container without lifting a portion thereof off of the ground.
  • In either case, by combining the motorized transport unit 102 with an item container, and by controlling movement of the motorized transport unit 102 via the aforementioned central computer system 106, these teachings will facilitate a wide variety of useful ways to assist both customers and associates in a shopping facility setting. For example, the motorized transport unit 102 can be configured to follow a particular customer as they shop within the shopping facility 101. The customer can then place items they intend to purchase into the item container that is associated with the motorized transport unit 102.
  • In some embodiments, the motorized transport unit 102 includes an input/output (I/O) device 424 that is coupled to the control circuit 406. The I/O device 424 allows an external device to couple to the control unit 404. The function and purpose of connecting devices will depend on the application. In some examples, devices connecting to the I/O device 424 may add functionality to the control unit 404, allow the exporting of data from the control unit 404, allow the diagnosing of the motorized transport unit 102, and so on.
  • In some embodiments, the motorized transport unit 102 includes a user interface 426 including for example, user inputs and/or user outputs or displays depending on the intended interaction with the user. For example, user inputs could include any input device such as buttons, knobs, switches, touch sensitive surfaces or display screens, and so on. Example user outputs include lights, display screens, and so on. The user interface 426 may work together with or separate from any user interface implemented at a user interface unit 114 (such as a smart phone or tablet device).
  • The control unit 404 includes a memory 408 coupled to the control circuit 406 and that stores, for example, operating instructions and/or useful data. The control circuit 406 can comprise a fixed-purpose hard-wired platform or can comprise a partially or wholly programmable platform. These architectural options are well known and understood in the art and require no further description here.
  • This control circuit 406 is configured (for example, by using corresponding programming stored in the memory 408 as will be well understood by those skilled in the art) to carry out one or more of the steps, actions, and/or functions described herein. The memory 408 may be integral to the control circuit 406 or can be physically discrete (in whole or in part) from the control circuit 406 as desired. This memory 408 can also be local with respect to the control circuit 406 (where, for example, both share a common circuit board, chassis, power supply, and/or housing) or can be partially or wholly remote with respect to the control circuit 406. This memory 408 can serve, for example, to non-transitorily store the computer instructions that, when executed by the control circuit 406, cause the control circuit 406 to behave as described herein. (As used herein, this reference to “non-transitorily” will be understood to refer to a non-ephemeral state for the stored contents (and hence excludes when the stored contents merely constitute signals or waves) rather than volatility of the storage media itself and hence includes both non-volatile memory (such as read-only memory (ROM) as well as volatile memory (such as an erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM).)
  • It is noted that not all components illustrated in FIG. 4 are included in all embodiments of the motorized transport unit 102. That is, some components may be optional depending on the implementation.
  • FIG. 5 illustrates a functional block diagram that may generally represent any number of various electronic components of the system 100 that are computer type devices. The computer device 500 includes a control circuit 502, a memory 504, a user interface 506 and an input/output (I/O) interface 508 providing any type of wired and/or wireless connectivity to the computer device 500, all coupled to a communication bus 510 to allow data and signaling to pass therebetween. Generally, the control circuit 502 and the memory 504 may be referred to as a control unit. The control circuit 502, the memory 504, the user interface 506 and the I/O interface 508 may be any of the devices described herein or as understood in the art. The functionality of the computer device 500 will depend on the programming stored in the memory 504. The computer device 500 may represent a high level diagram for one or more of the central computer system 106, the motorized transport unit 102, the user interface unit 114, the location detection system 116, the user interface computer 128, the MTU docking station 122 and the MTU dispenser 120, or any other device or component in the system that is implemented as a computer device.
  • Additional Features Overview
  • Referring generally to FIGS. 1-5, the shopping assistance system 100 may implement one or more of several different features depending on the configuration of the system and its components. The following provides a brief description of several additional features that could be implemented by the system. One or more of these features could also be implemented in other systems separate from embodiments of the system. This is not meant to be an exhaustive description of all features and not meant to be an exhaustive description of the details any one of the features. Further details with regards to one or more features beyond this overview may be provided herein.
  • Tagalong Steering: This feature allows a given motorized transport unit 102 to lead or follow a user (e.g., a customer and/or a worker) throughout the shopping facility 101. For example, the central computer system 106 uses the location detection system 116 to determine the location of the motorized transport unit 102. For example, LED smart lights (e.g., the ByteLight system) of the location detection system 116 transmit a location number to smart devices which are with the customer (e.g., user interface units 114), and/or on the item container 104/motorized transport unit 102. The central computer system 106 receives the LED location numbers received by the smart devices through the wireless network 124. Using this information, in some embodiments, the central computer system 106 uses a grid placed upon a 2D CAD map and 3D point cloud model (e.g., from the databases 126) to direct, track, and plot paths for the other devices. Using the grid, the motorized transport unit 102 can drive a movable item container 104 in a straight path rather than zigzagging around the facility. As the user moves from one grid to another, the motorized transport unit 102 drives the container 104 from one grid to the other. In some embodiments, as the user moves towards the motorized transport unit, it stays still until the customer moves beyond an adjoining grid.
  • Detecting Objects: In some embodiments, motorized transport units 102 detect objects through several sensors mounted on motorized transport unit 102, through independent cameras (e.g., video cameras 118), through sensors of a corresponding movable item container 104, and through communications with the central computer system 106. In some embodiments, with semi-autonomous capabilities, the motorized transport unit 102 will attempt to avoid obstacles, and if unable to avoid, it will notify the central computer system 106 of an exception condition. In some embodiments, using sensors 414 (such as distance measurement units, e.g., laser or other optical-based distance measurement sensors), the motorized transport unit 102 detects obstacles in its path, and will move to avoid, or stop until the obstacle is clear.
  • Visual Remote Steering: This feature enables movement and/or operation of a motorized transport unit 102 to be controlled by a user on-site, off-site, or anywhere in the world. This is due to the architecture of some embodiments where the central computer system 106 outputs the control signals to the motorized transport unit 102. These controls signals could have originated at any device in communication with the central computer system 106. For example, the movement signals sent to the motorized transport unit 102 may be movement instructions determined by the central computer system 106; commands received at a user interface unit 114 from a user; and commands received at the central computer system 106 from a remote user not located at the shopping facility space.
  • Determining Location: Similar to that described above, this feature enables the central computer system 106 to determine the location of devices in the shopping facility 101. For example, the central computer system 106 maps received LED light transmissions, Bluetooth low energy radio signals or audio signals (or other received signals encoded with location data) to a 2D map of the shopping facility. Objects within the area of the shopping facility are also mapped and associated with those transmissions. Using this information, the central computer system 106 can determine the location of devices such as motorized transport units.
  • Digital Physical Map Integration: In some embodiments, the system 100 is capable of integrating 2D and 3D maps of the shopping facility with physical locations of objects and workers. Once the central computer system 106 maps all objects to specific locations using algorithms, measurements and LED geo-location, for example, grids are applied which sections off the maps into access ways and blocked sections. Motorized transport units 102 use these grids for navigation and recognition. In some cases, grids are applied to 2D horizontal maps along with 3D models. In some cases, grids start at a higher unit level and then can be broken down into smaller units of measure by the central computer system 106 when needed to provide more accuracy.
  • Calling a Motorized Transport Unit: This feature provides multiple methods to request and schedule a motorized transport unit 102 for assistance in the shopping facility. In some embodiments, users can request use of a motorized transport unit 102 through the user interface unit 114. The central computer system 106 can check to see if there is an available motorized transport unit. Once assigned to a given user, other users will not be able to control the already assigned transport unit. Workers, such as store associates, may also reserve multiple motorized transport units in order to accomplish a coordinated large job.
  • Locker Delivery: In some embodiments, one or more motorized transport units 102 may be used to pick, pack, and deliver items to a particular storage locker 132. The motorized transport units 102 can couple to and move the storage locker to a desired location. In some embodiments, once delivered, the requestor will be notified that the items are ready to be picked up, and will be provided the locker location and locker security code key.
  • Route Optimization: In some embodiments, the central computer system automatically generates a travel route for one or more motorized transport units through the shopping facility space. In some embodiments, this route is based on one or more of a user provided list of items entered by the user via a user interface unit 114; user selected route preferences entered by the user via the user interface unit 114; user profile data received from a user information database (e.g., from one of databases 126); and product availability information from a retail inventory database (e.g., from one of databases 126). In some cases, the route intends to minimize the time it takes to get through the facility, and in some cases, may route the shopper to the least busy checkout area. Frequently, there will be multiple possible optimum routes. The route chosen may take the user by things the user is more likely to purchase (in case they forgot something), and away from things they are not likely to buy (to avoid embarrassment). That is, routing a customer through sporting goods, women's lingerie, baby food, or feminine products, who has never purchased such products based on past customer behavior would be non-productive, and potentially embarrassing to the customer. In some cases, a route may be determined from multiple possible routes based on past shopping behavior, e.g., if the customer typically buys a cold Diet Coke product, children's shoes or power tools, this information would be used to add weight to the best alternative routes, and determine the route accordingly.
  • Store Facing Features: In some embodiments, these features enable functions to support workers in performing store functions. For example, the system can assist workers to know what products and items are on the shelves and which ones need attention. For example, using 3D scanning and point cloud measurements, the central computer system can determine where products are supposed to be, enabling workers to be alerted to facing or zoning of issues along with potential inventory issues.
  • Phone Home: This feature allows users in a shopping facility 101 to be able to contact remote users who are not at the shopping facility 101 and include them in the shopping experience. For example, the user interface unit 114 may allow the user to place a voice call, a video call, or send a text message. With video call capabilities, a remote person can virtually accompany an in-store shopper, visually sharing the shopping experience while seeing and talking with the shopper. One or more remote shoppers may join the experience.
  • Returns: In some embodiments, the central computer system 106 can task a motorized transport unit 102 to keep the returns area clear of returned merchandise. For example, the transport unit may be instructed to move a cart from the returns area to a different department or area. Such commands may be initiated from video analytics (the central computer system analyzing camera footage showing a cart full), from an associate command (digital or verbal), or on a schedule, as other priority tasks allow. The motorized transport unit 102 can first bring an empty cart to the returns area, prior to removing a full one.
  • Bring a Container: One or more motorized transport units can retrieve a movable item container 104 (such as a shopping cart) to use. For example, upon a customer or worker request, the motorized transport unit 102 can re-position one or more item containers 104 from one location to another. In some cases, the system instructs the motorized transport unit where to obtain an empty item container for use. For example, the system can recognize an empty and idle item container that has been abandoned or instruct that one be retrieved from a cart storage area. In some cases, the call to retrieve an item container may be initiated through a call button placed throughout the facility, or through the interface of a user interface unit 114.
  • Respond to Voice Commands: In some cases, control of a given motorized transport unit is implemented through the acceptance of voice commands. For example, the user may speak voice commands to the motorized transport unit 102 itself and/or to the user interface unit 114. In some embodiments, a voice print is used to authorize to use of a motorized transport unit 102 to allow voice commands from single user at a time.
  • Retrieve Abandoned Item Containers: This feature allows the central computer system to track movement of movable item containers in and around the area of the shopping facility 101, including both the sale floor areas and the back-room areas. For example, using visual recognition through store cameras 118 or through user interface units 114, the central computer system 106 can identify abandoned and out-of-place movable item containers. In some cases, each movable item container has a transmitter or smart device which will send a unique identifier to facilitate tracking or other tasks and its position using LED geo-location identification. Using LED geo-location identification with the Determining Location feature through smart devices on each cart, the central computer system 106 can determine the length of time a movable item container 104 is stationary.
  • Stocker Assistance: This feature allows the central computer system to track movement of merchandise flow into and around the back-room areas. For example, using visual recognition and captured images, the central computer system 106 can determine if carts are loaded or not for moving merchandise between the back room areas and the sale floor areas. Tasks or alerts may be sent to workers to assign tasks.
  • Self-Docking: Motorized transport units 102 will run low or out of power when used. Before this happens, the motorized transport units 102 need to recharge to stay in service. According to this feature, motorized transport units 102 will self-dock and recharge (e.g., at a MTU docking station 122) to stay at maximum efficiency, when not in use. When use is completed, the motorized transport unit 102 will return to a docking station 122. In some cases, if the power is running low during use, a replacement motorized transport unit can be assigned to move into position and replace the motorized transport unit with low power. The transition from one unit to the next can be seamless to the user.
  • Item Container Retrieval: With this feature, the central computer system 106 can cause multiple motorized transport units 102 to retrieve abandoned item containers from exterior areas such as parking lots. For example, multiple motorized transport units are loaded into a movable dispenser, e.g., the motorized transport units are vertically stacked in the dispenser. The dispenser is moved to the exterior area and the transport units are dispensed. Based on video analytics, it is determined which item containers 104 are abandoned and for how long. A transport unit will attach to an abandoned cart and return it to a storage bay.
  • Motorized Transport Unit Dispenser: This feature provides the movable dispenser that contains and moves a group of motorized transport units to a given area (e.g., an exterior area such as a parking lot) to be dispensed for use. For example, motorized transport units can be moved to the parking lot to retrieve abandoned item containers 104. In some cases, the interior of the dispenser includes helically wound guide rails that mate with the guide member 208 to allow the motorized transport units to be guided to a position to be dispensed.
  • Specialized Module Retrieval: This feature allows the system 100 to track movement of merchandise flow into and around the sales floor areas and the back-room areas including special modules that may be needed to move to the sales floor. For example, using video analytics, the system can determine if a modular unit it loaded or empty. Such modular units may house items that are of seasonal or temporary use on the sales floor. For example, when it is raining, it is useful to move a module unit displaying umbrellas from a back room area (or a lesser accessed area of the sales floor) to a desired area of the sales floor area.
  • Authentication: By one approach this feature uses a voice imprint with an authentication code/word to authenticate a user to a given motorized transport unit. If desired, one motorized transport unit can be swapped for another using this authentication. For example, a token may be used during the session with the user. The token can be a unique identifier for the session that is dropped once the session ends. A logical token may be a session identifier (ID) used by the application of the user interface unit 114 to establish the session ID when a user logs on and when deciding to so use the system 100. In some embodiments, communications throughout the session are encrypted using the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) standard or other methods at the (or a) transport level.
  • Further Details of Some Embodiments
  • In accordance with some embodiments, further details are now provided for one or more of these and other features.
  • FIG. 6 presents a process 600 that can be carried out by the aforementioned central computer system 106 to assign the aforementioned motorized transport unit 102 to a requesting user to serve as a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. In this illustrative example the central computer system 106 receives (via, for example, a wireless communication from a user interface unit 114 as described above) a request 601 from a user to use one of an available plurality of motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatuses.
  • By one approach, and as illustrated in FIG. 6, the central computer system 106 assesses 602 that user request 601. This assessment can include, for example, determining that the user request 601 is properly formatted and includes all relevant information (including, for example, information to identify the user).
  • This assessment can also optionally include, if desired, accessing other information 603 such as information indicating whether the user is personally barred from being assigned a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and/or information regarding a present physical location of the user. A particular user may be personally barred based upon prior misuse of a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus or other misconduct in a shopping facility 101 such as a retail store environment. The present physical location of the user may be useful to determine, for example, that a user making a present request is not actually at the retail store and hence is not physically present to accept the requested assignment.
  • When the assessment 602 concludes with a determination that the user request 601 should be denied, this process 600 can provide for such a denial 604. That denial state can then be transmitted to the user interface unit 114, transmitted to a relevant person of authority at the shopping facility 101, entered into a log, and so forth as desired.
  • When the assessment 602 concludes with a determination that the user request 601 can be granted, this process 600 provides for assigning 605 an available motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. This assignment can include, for example, causing the assigned apparatus to maneuver and otherwise make itself available to the requesting user.
  • By one approach, assigning the available apparatus includes wirelessly transmitting to the user via the user interface unit 114 a globally unique session token 606 that uniquely corresponds to this usage session. The globally unique session token can comprise an appropriate string of characters of choice (including alphabetic characters, a numeric character, punctuation characters, hexadecimal characters, and so forth as desired). As used herein, this reference to being “globally unique” means that the session token is an utterly unique string of characters within the context of session tokens utilized by the entity that owns and/or operates the shopping facility 101 to thereby uniquely identify each usage session with such session tokens.
  • By another approach, in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, assigning the available apparatus includes wirelessly transmitting to the user via the user interface unit 114 a temporary N-digit code 607. For many application settings it will be useful for “N” to be a non-zero integer. In this particular illustrative example “N” has at least five digits. In such a case, these teachings contemplate that the user interface unit 114 will display the N-digit code to the user for no more than a pre-determined period of time (such as 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or some other duration of choice). The central computer system 106 then monitors to determine whether a communication including the N-digit code is received 608 within a pre-determined period of time “T.”
  • When the N-digit code is not so received, the central computer system 106 can withdraw the assignment 609 of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. Withdrawing the assignment 609 can include, for example, instructing the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to return to a waiting/staging area and to retire the globally unique session token that had been assigned to the granted usage session.
  • In addition to the foregoing, or in lieu thereof, these teachings will also accommodate having the central computer system 106 track 610 information regarding use of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. These teachings will accommodate a variety of usage information including information regarding activity of the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus as well as activity of the user. This activity information can include, for example, physical location information regarding these respective entities. By one approach the aforementioned activity information can include a timestamp or other temporal indicator to correlate the tracked activities with specific times.
  • By one approach the central computer system 106 is configured to use the aforementioned globally unique session token to log some or all of the aforementioned tracking information. So configured, such activity information can be readily recalled or otherwise processed as a function of that globally unique session token to thereby correlate that tracked activity with a specific usage session.
  • By one optional approach, and as illustrated at decision block 611, this process 600 will accommodate determining whether the user (and/or the motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus) enters an area that is off-limits to the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. An example of an off-limits area might be a back stockroom where only authorized associates of the shopping facility 101 are permitted. Another example might be any area that is external to the shopping facility 101 itself (in which case the concept of “off limits” might pertain to the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus though not to the user themselves).
  • Upon detecting an off-limits incursion, the central computer system 106 can respond appropriately. In this particular example the central computer system 106 withdraws the assignment 609 of the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and thereby concludes the usage session as described above. These teachings will accommodate other approaches if desired. For example, the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus can stop moving in conjunction with the user and can sound a caution or alert tone or message in an attempt to redirect the user from the off-limits area.
  • It is possible that an assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus may need replacement during a usage session. As one simple example in these regards the rechargeable power source 420 for the apparatus 102 may require recharging. As another simple example the assigned apparatus may suffer a breakdown or other fault that prevents or impairs the ability of the assigned apparatus to itself conclude the usage session in a satisfactory manner. In such a case, if desired, this process 600 can be optionally configured to determine (at decision block 612) a need to replace an assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus, and upon detecting such a need, reassign 613 a different motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to the user for that usage session.
  • This reassignment 613 can include, for example, transferring the globally unique session token that was assigned to the user for this usage session to the replacement motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. Using this approach avoids any need to update the user interface unit 114 with a new globally unique session token and also ensures continuity when tracking information during a particular usage session as described above.
  • These teachings will also include detecting or determining (at block 614) an indication from the user (via the corresponding user interface unit 114) that the user wishes to conclude the usage session. Upon detecting/determining that input, the central computer system 106 can end the session 615. Ending the session can include, for example, returning the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus to a waiting area to await a new assignment, reassigning the apparatus to a new usage session, directing the apparatus to a recharging location, or such other action as may be appropriate to the circumstances and application setting as desired.
  • When configured as described in the above example, it can be helpful for the user interface unit 114 to respond in an expected manner to the central computer system 106. FIG. 7 presents a process 700 that can be carried out by the user interface unit 114 in these regards.
  • In this example the user interface unit 114 receives (at block 701) a request from a user 702 of the user interface unit 114 for a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. This request might be entered by the user 702 using any of a variety of selection or data-entry methodologies as are known in the art. As the present teachings are not overly sensitive to any particular choices in these regards, further elaboration in these regards is not provided here for the sake of brevity.
  • Upon receiving this request the user interface unit 114 transmits that request at block 703. As noted above, this transmission can comprise a wireless transmission to the central computer system 106 using, for example, an intervening Wi-Fi network or some other wireless technology of choice.
  • As noted above, in some configurations the central computer system 106 may deny the user's request. In that case the central computer system 106 may transmit to the user interface unit 114 a corresponding denial message. Upon detecting receipt of such a denial at block 704, this process 700 will accommodate displaying that denial at block 705 using, for example, an integral display.
  • In any event, presuming that the central computer system 106 grants the aforementioned request, the user interface unit 114 receives (at block 706) the above-described globally unique session token. In an application setting where the central computer system 106 also transmits the above-described temporary N-digit code, at block 707 the user interface unit 114 will also receive that temporary N-digit code.
  • At block 708 the user interface unit 114 will use that received globally unique session token as an encryption key for session communications as correspond to this particular usage session for the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus. Accordingly, that globally unique session token may serve as an encryption key for communications (both transmitted and received) between the user interface unit 114 and the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and/or for communications (both transmitted and received) between the user interface unit 114 and the central computer system 106. If desired, that globally unique session token may also serve, during (and only during) the usage session as an encryption key for communications (both transmitted and received) between the assigned motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus and the central computer system 106.
  • In the case when the user interface unit 114 also receives the temporary N-digit code, at block 709 the user interface unit 114 can display that temporary N-digit code using, for example, its integral display. FIG. 8 provides an illustrative example in these regards. In this example the user interface unit 114 includes a display that comprises a touch-sensitive display as is known in the art. The received N-digit code in this example comprises a five-digit code 802 comprising the digits “83835” which are displayed on the user interface unit's display.
  • With continued reference to both FIGS. 7 and 8, at block 710 the user interface unit 114 determines whether the user 702 enters the N-digit code into the user interface unit 114 within a predetermined period of time (such as 10 seconds, 30 seconds, or some other duration of choice). As illustrated in FIG. 8, the user interface unit 114 can present a code-entry field 803 to accommodate entry of the N-digit code on a digit-by-digit basis. In this particular example the user 702 has entered the first two digits (i.e., “8” and “3”) of the five-digit code 802 and accordingly the code-entry insertion point 806 is displayed at the third code-entry opportunity in the code-entry field 803.
  • In this example the user interface unit 114 also displays a numeric keypad 804 that the user 702 can employ to enter the N-digit code. Upon completing entry of the code, the user 702 then asserts an enter button 805 that the user interface unit 114 also presents on the display.
  • At block 711 the user interface unit 114 then transmits the entered N-digit code to the central computer system 106 for processing as described above. By one approach this transmission is encrypted using the already-assigned globally unique session token.
  • FIGS. 9 through 11 present further illustrative examples in these same general regards. In particular, FIG. 9 illustrates a process 900 that can serve in an application setting as shown in FIG. 10 where the retail shopping facility 101 includes a plurality of motorized transport units 102 where at least some of the motorized transport units 102 are differently purposed and hence differently physically configured as compared with other. FIG. 10 provides a number of specific examples in these regards. It will be understood that the specific details in this example are intended to serve an illustrative purpose and are not intended to suggest any particular limitations with respect to these teachings.
  • In particular, in this example, the plurality of available motorized transport units 102 include one or more disability mobility platforms 1001 (purposed and configured to support and convey, for example, a person having a walking disability), one or more grocery carts 1002 (purposed and configured to contain and convey, for example, one or more grocery items in a suitably-sized basket), one or more pallets 1003 (purposed and configured, for example, as a largely or even completely flat surface (lacking side walls) that can support thereon one or more items to be moved from one place to another), one or more child-carrying platforms 1004 (purposed and configured to support and convey, for example, one or more infants in a seated posture or in a child carrier), and any other platform 1005 or the like specifically configured to accommodate two or more of the foregoing purposes and/or to support any other desired capability.
  • These motorized transport units 102 can be made available, for example, in a partially or wholly dedicated holding or staging area inside the retail shopping facility 101 or nearby the retail shopping facility 101 as desired.
  • With continued reference to both FIGS. 9 and 10, pursuant to this process 900 the aforementioned central computer system 106 (at block 901) interfaces with a user 1006 regarding tasking a particular one of plurality of motorized transport units 102 with assisting the user 1006 in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility 101. The central computer system 106 can effect this interfacing via its network interface(s) 112 as described above and via one or more intervening networks 124, also as described above.
  • The user 1006, in turn, can interface with the central computer system 106 via, for example, the aforementioned user interface unit 114. These teachings are highly flexible in these regards and will accommodate, for example, having the central computer system 106 so interface with the user 1006 via one or more of a web-based interface, a short-range wireless interface, a voice-based interface, and/or a gesture-based interface. All of these interfaces are well known in the art. Since the present teachings are not especially sensitive to any particular choices in these regards, further elaboration is not provided here for the sake of brevity.
  • FIG. 11 provides some specific examples regarding the aforementioned interfacing. By one approach, and as illustrated at block 1101, the central computer system 106 interfaces with the user 1006 by prompting the user to identify a particular purpose (or purposes) and/or configuration (or configurations) for the motorized transport unit 102. The supplied information can then be utilized by the central computer system 106 to determine, for example, how many and what kind of independent purposes the user seeks to have served by the motorized transport unit(s) 102. As one example in these regards, the user 1006 may respond to such a prompting by identifying their needs as including shopping for groceries while accompanied by one infant.
  • These teachings will accommodate a variety of ways of eliciting such information. By one approach, for example, the user 1006 can be prompted to identify a particular response by selecting from amongst a plurality of provided candidate responses. By another approach the user 1006 can respond using a free-text field or by otherwise responding in a natural sentence-based way with a description of their needs.
  • By another approach, in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, the process can prompt the user 1006 to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user 1006 at the retail shopping facility 101. For example, a user 1006 may have simultaneous need of both a grocery cart 1002 (to gather a plurality of ordinary grocery items) and a pallet 1003 (to acquire, for example, a particularly large item such as a flatscreen television).
  • By yet another approach, and again in lieu of the foregoing or in combination therewith, the process can prompt the user 1006 to identify a time at which the assistance of the assigned motorized transport unit 102 is sought. This can comprise identifying a specific day and time, or, for example, a window of time (for example, from 3:30 PM to 4 PM on a particular day).
  • Referring again to FIG. 9, and based upon the foregoing interfacing active, by one optional approach the central computer system (at optional block 902) schedules and/or assigns at least one appropriate motorized transport unit 102 that will meet the specified needs of the user 1006. For example, if the user 1006 intends to shop for groceries while accompanied by an infant, the central computer system 106 may assign a motorized transport unit 102 that includes both a cart for receiving groceries as well as a seat to safely receive and contain the infant. Or, when an integrated platform is not available that can support both of those needs, the central computer system can assign a grocery cart 1002 and a separate child-carrying platform 1004 to assist this user 1006 during this visit to the retail shopping facility 101.
  • So configured, using a combination of automation, one or more remote resources, and the appropriate interactions of the user themselves a motorized mobile retail facility personal assistance apparatus can be reliably and timely assigned to a given individual in a short period of time and with little or no training required on the part of the user.
  • In some embodiments, systems, apparatuses and methods are provided herein useful to provide customer assistance. In some embodiments, In some embodiments, an apparatus comprises: a plurality of motorized transport units configured to move through a retail shopping facility, as least some of the motorized transport units being differently purposed and hence differently physically configured as compared to one another; a central computer system having a network interface such that the central computer system wirelessly communicates with the plurality of motorized transport units and wherein the central computer system is configured to: interface with a user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility.
  • In some embodiments, the motorized transport units include at least one unit that is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of: a disability mobility platform; a grocery cart; a pallet; a child-carrying platform. In some embodiments, the motorized transport units include at least one other unit that is purposed and physically configured differently than the at least one unit and which is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of: a disability mobility platform; a grocery cart; a pallet; a child-carrying platform. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via at least one of: a web-based interface; a short-range wireless interface; a voice-based interface; a gesture-based interface. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via any of: a web-based interface; a short-range wireless interface; a voice-based interface; a gesture-based interface. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility by, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a particular purpose or configuration for the motorized transport unit to be tasked with assisting the user. In some embodiments, the central computer system is further configured to interface with the user to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility, at least in part, by determining how many independent purposes the user seeks to be served. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility by, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a time at which the assistance is sought. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user to schedule the time at which at least one of the motorized transport units will be available at the retail shopping facility to assist the user.
  • In some embodiments, a method comprises: by a central computer system having a network interface such that the central computer system wirelessly communicates with a plurality of motorized transport units that are configured to move through a retail shopping facility, wherein as least some of the motorized transport units are differently purposed and hence differently physically configured as compared to one another: interfacing with a user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility.
  • In some embodiments, the motorized transport units include at least one unit that is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of: a disability mobility platform; a grocery cart; a pallet; a child-carrying platform. In some embodiments, the motorized transport units include at least one other unit that is purposed and physically configured differently than the at least one unit and which is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of: a disability mobility platform; a grocery cart; a pallet; a child-carrying platform. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via at least one of: a web-based interface; a short-range wireless interface; a voice-based interface; a gesture-based interface. In some embodiments, the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via any of: a web-based interface; a short-range wireless interface; a voice-based interface; a gesture-based interface. In some embodiments, the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a particular purpose or configuration for the motorized transport unit to be tasked with assisting the user. In some embodiments, the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility further comprises interfacing with the user to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility. In some embodiments, the determining how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, determining how many independent purposes the user seeks to be served. In some embodiments, the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a time at which the assistance is sought. In some embodiments, the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility further comprises interfacing with the user to schedule the time at which at least one of the motorized transport units will be available at the retail shopping facility to assist the user.
  • Those skilled in the art will recognize that a wide variety of modifications, alterations, and combinations can be made with respect to the above described embodiments without departing from the scope of the invention, and that such modifications, alterations, and combinations are to be viewed as being within the ambit of the inventive concept.

Claims (20)

What is claimed is:
1. An apparatus comprising:
a plurality of motorized transport units configured to move through a retail shopping facility, as least some of the motorized transport units being differently purposed and hence differently physically configured as compared to one another;
a central computer system having a network interface such that the central computer system wirelessly communicates with the plurality of motorized transport units and wherein the central computer system is configured to:
interface with a user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility.
2. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein the motorized transport units include at least one unit that is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of:
a disability mobility platform;
a grocery cart;
a pallet;
a child-carrying platform.
3. The apparatus of claim 2 wherein the motorized transport units include at least one other unit that is purposed and physically configured differently than the at least one unit and which is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of:
a disability mobility platform;
a grocery cart;
a pallet;
a child-carrying platform.
4. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via at least one of:
a web-based interface;
a short-range wireless interface;
a voice-based interface;
a gesture-based interface.
5. The apparatus of claim 4 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via any of:
a web-based interface;
a short-range wireless interface;
a voice-based interface;
a gesture-based interface.
6. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility by, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a particular purpose or configuration for the motorized transport unit to be tasked with assisting the user.
7. The apparatus of claim 6 wherein the central computer system is further configured to interface with the user to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility.
8. The apparatus of claim 7 wherein the central computer system is configured to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility, at least in part, by determining how many independent purposes the user seeks to be served.
9. The apparatus of claim 1 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility by, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a time at which the assistance is sought.
10. The apparatus of claim 9 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user to schedule the time at which at least one of the motorized transport units will be available at the retail shopping facility to assist the user.
11. A method comprising:
by a central computer system having a network interface such that the central computer system wirelessly communicates with a plurality of motorized transport units that are configured to move through a retail shopping facility, wherein as least some of the motorized transport units are differently purposed and hence differently physically configured as compared to one another:
interfacing with a user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility.
12. The method of claim 11 wherein the motorized transport units include at least one unit that is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of:
a disability mobility platform;
a grocery cart;
a pallet;
a child-carrying platform.
13. The method of claim 12 wherein the motorized transport units include at least one other unit that is purposed and physically configured differently than the at least one unit and which is purposed and physically configured to serve as one of:
a disability mobility platform;
a grocery cart;
a pallet;
a child-carrying platform.
14. The method of claim 11 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via at least one of:
a web-based interface;
a short-range wireless interface;
a voice-based interface;
a gesture-based interface.
15. The method of claim 14 wherein the central computer system is configured to interface with the user via any of:
a web-based interface;
a short-range wireless interface;
a voice-based interface;
a gesture-based interface.
16. The method of claim 11 wherein the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a particular purpose or configuration for the motorized transport unit to be tasked with assisting the user.
17. The method of claim 16 wherein the interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility further comprises interfacing with the user to determine how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility.
18. The method of claim 17 wherein determining how many of the motorized transport units to simultaneously task with assisting the user at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, determining how many independent purposes the user seeks to be served.
19. The method of claim 11 wherein interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility comprises, at least in part, prompting the user to identify a time at which the assistance is sought.
20. The method of claim 19 wherein interfacing with the user regarding tasking a particular one of the plurality of motorized transport units with assisting the user in a particular corresponding way at the retail shopping facility further comprises interfacing with the user to schedule the time at which at least one of the motorized transport units will be available at the retail shopping facility to assist the user.
US15/447,202 2015-03-06 2017-03-02 Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus Pending US20170178082A1 (en)

Priority Applications (39)

Application Number Priority Date Filing Date Title
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US15/447,202 US20170178082A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-03-02 Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus

Applications Claiming Priority (1)

Application Number Priority Date Filing Date Title
US15/447,202 US20170178082A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-03-02 Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus

Related Parent Applications (1)

Application Number Title Priority Date Filing Date
US15/061,980 Continuation US10287149B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-03-04 Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus

Publications (1)

Publication Number Publication Date
US20170178082A1 true US20170178082A1 (en) 2017-06-22

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US15/061,677 Pending US20160260049A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-03-04 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices, and methods to dispatch and recover motorized transport units that effect remote deliveries
US15/275,009 Active 2036-09-21 US10071893B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-09-23 Shopping facility assistance system and method to retrieve in-store abandoned mobile item containers
US15/275,019 Active 2036-11-17 US10336592B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-09-23 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices, and methods to facilitate returning items to their respective departments
US15/275,047 Active US10081525B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-09-23 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices and methods to address ground and weather conditions
US15/274,991 Active US10189691B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-09-23 Shopping facility track system and method of routing motorized transport units
US15/282,951 Active US10189692B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-09-30 Systems, devices and methods for restoring shopping space conditions
US15/288,923 Active 2037-04-27 US10315897B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-10-07 Systems, devices and methods for determining item availability in a shopping space
US15/423,812 Pending US20170148075A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-02-03 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices and methods to detect and handle incorrectly placed items
US15/446,914 Pending US20170178066A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-03-01 Shopping facility discarded item sorting systems, devices and methods
US15/447,175 Pending US20170176986A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-03-02 Trash can monitoring systems and methods
US15/447,202 Pending US20170178082A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-03-02 Assignment of a motorized personal assistance apparatus
US15/692,226 Pending US20180020896A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2017-08-31 Shopping facility assistance object detection systems, devices and methods
US15/892,250 Pending US20180170729A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-02-08 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices and methods to drive movable item containers
US15/894,155 Active US10351399B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-02-12 Systems, devices and methods of controlling motorized transport units in fulfilling product orders
US16/001,774 Pending US20180282139A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-06-06 Overriding control of motorize transport unit systems, devices and methods
US16/059,431 Active US10351400B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-08-09 Apparatus and method of obtaining location information of a motorized transport unit
US16/100,064 Pending US20180346300A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-08-09 Systems, devices and methods of providing customer support in locating product
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US15/061,792 Pending US20160260145A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-03-04 Multi-shopper cooperative shopping experience apparatus and method
US15/061,025 Active US9875502B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2016-03-04 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices, and methods to identify security and safety anomalies
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US15/892,250 Pending US20180170729A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-02-08 Shopping facility assistance systems, devices and methods to drive movable item containers
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US16/001,774 Pending US20180282139A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-06-06 Overriding control of motorize transport unit systems, devices and methods
US16/059,431 Active US10351400B2 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-08-09 Apparatus and method of obtaining location information of a motorized transport unit
US16/100,064 Pending US20180346300A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-08-09 Systems, devices and methods of providing customer support in locating product
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US16/216,147 Pending US20190112171A1 (en) 2015-03-06 2018-12-11 Systems, devices and methods for restoring shopping space conditions
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