watsonpixnwqEarlier this year The Semantic Web Blog covered the launch of the IBM Watson Group, a new business unit to create an ecosystem around Watson Cloud-delivered cognitive apps and services. One of the partners announced at that time was Fluid Inc., which is developing a personal shopper for ecommerce that leverages Watson. Today, the Watson Group is pushing that partnership forward by drawing from the $100 million that IBM has earmarked for direct investments in cognitive apps in order to invest in Fluid and in helping deliver what it says will be “the first-ever cognitive assistant for online shoppers into the marketplace.”

At the previous event in January, Fluid CEO Kent Deverell discussed and demonstrated the Expert Personal Shopper, now known as the Fluid Expert Shopper (XPS). Still in development, it takes advantage of Watson’s ability to understand the context of consumers’ questions in natural language, draw upon what it learns from users via its interactions with them, and match that against insights uncovered from huge amounts of data around a product or category – including a brand’s product information, user reviews and online expert publications — to deliver a personalized e-commerce shopping experience via desktops, tablets and smartphones.

The first Fluid XPS prototype is being developed for customer outdoor apparel and equipment retailer, The North Face, which Deverell showcased at the previous event.

At the IBM event in January, Deverell painted a picture of the difference between the experience consumers have with a great sales person vs. traditional ecommerce. Good salespeople, he said, “are personal, proactive conversational,” whereas e-commerce is data-driven. He told the audience at the event that Fluid wants to combine the best of both worlds. “A great sales associate makes you feel good about your purchase,” he said, and he envisions Fluid XPS doing the same through natural conversation, the ability to learn about the users’ needs, “to go as deep as you need to and resurface and provide relevant recommendations.”

In the release announcing the investment, an example of Fluid XPS in use is asking Watson for advice on what outdoor gear is best-suited for a five-day, June hiking adventure in Phoenix. Fluid XPS, it says, would call upon Watson’s understanding of natural language to identify clues from the user’s question suggesting particular needs around weather, terrain and trail conditions.

Fluid is creating its cognitive technology in the Watson Developer Cloud, which provides a toolkit and sandbox for building cognitive apps, as well as access to Watson’s Application Programming Interface (API).  IBM defines the Watson Question and Answer API as a Representational State Transfer service interface that allows applications to interact with Watson, using it to  pose questions to Watson, retrieve responses, and submit feedback on those responses. In addition to simple question and responses, Watson, it says, can provide transparency into how it reached its conclusions through the REST services. Other functions, such as ingesting content in the Watson platform, also are exposed as tools and APIs and can be accessed from within an application.

IBM’s first Watson Fund investment went to ecosystem partner Welltok (see story here), which is leveraging Watson to power CafeWell Concierge for health plans, health systems, accountable care organizations, and health retailers who want to give their customers a way to identify personalized activities, health content and condition management programs to optimize health and then be rewarded for positive behavior change.