Thursday, September 04, 2008

Be all that you can be (virtually)

The American Defense Industry has put a multi-platform digital environment in a retail setting. Instead of trying to up-sell customers to get a few more dollars out of their wallets, though, these terminals are designed to sell a career choice. The Army has been making good use of digital technology for many years, funding research and development for a wide variety of products. Now, the ordinary consumer gets a chance to experiment with military technology in a retail setting, with last week’s grand opening of the Army Experience Center at Philadelphia’s Franklin Mills Mall.

This environment proves interesting not only for its amazing array of technology, but for the soft sell it represents, since military personnel who staff the center are not technically recruiting, but rather telling all visitors "the Army story." Most of the promotional news reporting about the Center has been quick to point out that, even with current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is meeting its current goals for recruits. At the same time, the Center is located in a high traffic mall close to a large urban population, an ideal customer base for both public education and potential enlistees.

The actual space is an interesting combination of virtual video gone wild and lifestyle promotion. The lounge serves food and drinks (free to anyone who registers) and has a digital display of army life. Touch screen videos allow potential recruits to find military bases across the globe, research potential careers with the Army, and learn about advanced training in multimedia, robotics, and piloting. The Tactical Ops Center looks like a movie set, with nine large screen displays for global tracking, computer-simulated missile operation, and other virtual training opportunities. If all that seems too tame for you, there’s a whole room of Black Hawk, Apache helicopter, and Humvee simulators. To prove that today’s youth are not wasting their time on video games, there’s a sci-fi inspired theater arena for Xbox and PC games like Warcraft, Madden’s NFL, and Ghost Recon. Although gaming skills start early in our culture, this room is limited to those 13 and older.

If the whole Army experience-in-a-mall isn't enough one its own, you can wind your way to Sears and pick up your very own official Army clothing (proceeds go to support programs for the troops) so that your simulated helicopter runs will feel even more authentic.

The entire site is more than three times the size of a basketball court, filled with digital and interactive kiosks. The sleek touch screen pillars look a bit too much like vintage Science Museum fare, the kind where you learn about protozoa and the last days of dinosaurs (Why make people stand at a kiosk when they don’t have to?), but the overall experience is sleek and inviting. The lounge has the feel of an airport club, with Army Life videos playing rather than CNN.

Overall, it’s an interesting approach to retail-as-education through state-of-the-art digital technology. If you’re in the Philadelphia area, it’s worth a stop just to see what’s possible with a large budget and no monthly sales quota. Be all that you can be, indeed!