Bernard Arnault Viva Tech

PARIS — A small army of robots invaded France’s foreign ministry Wednesday, prompting a response with a distinctly French flavor: people fueled up on cream puffs and strong coffee, then launched into discussion about how to harness technology to project influence on a global stage.

This was the preview to the Viva Technology Fair, scheduled for May 24 to 26, France’s answer to the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.

The brainchild of Publicis chief executive officer Maurice Levy and Francis Morel, who heads LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s French financial newspaper Les Echos, the show is heading into its third year with plans of robot parades, a “battle bot” competition and a park for testing self-driving cars. Speakers will include IBM ceo Ginni Rometty, Cisco ceo Chuck Robbins and SAP ceo Bill McDermott.

Robots on hand at the preview event included pint-sized NAO, who performed stretches while personable Pepper blinked and tilted its head; there was also Heasy, the rolling guide robot and In Moov, the most human-looking of the gathering.

“France is back,” said publicity-meister Levy, switching to English in the middle of a speech in French to add heft to his message, borrowed from French President Emmanuel Macron. He and Morel recalled that the tech show began as a vague project that was quickly approved by LVMH chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault. “This idea of an international event in Paris attracted him immediately,” said Morel.

The luxury titan’s support has since been joined by over two dozen international companies, regional branches of the French government and even the foreign ministry, which agreed to host the preshow event without hesitation, according to a foreign ministry official.

“Digital transformation touches every part of our business, from communications to marketing to retail to data science,” noted of LVMH’s chief digital officer Ian Rogers.

For LMVH’s sprawling collection of 70 brands, the tech show, along with the luxury conglomerate’s associated innovation award, serves as a platform for interaction with a wide array of start-ups, in Rogers’ view.

“Viva Technology and the LVMH innovation award has given us this focal point, this center of the year to really reach out in a meaningful way to all of the startups that we talk to and create a forum to be sure that we know everyone who’s in our space and build a deeper relationship with the right set,” noted the tattooed executive who shot to corporate fame in the online music business before leaving Apple for the LVMH job.

Hundreds of applicants are whittled down to 30 by a group of journalists and venture capitalists as part of the innovation contest.

Last year’s winner, Heuritech, has branched out from working with Louis Vuitton to doing business also with another LVMH brand, Christian Dior, said Charlotte Fanneau, marketing director of the start-up. The company culls through images on social networks to identify trends and show brands how their products are being used.

“Not only can we see our products in these images, but we can identify trends, with people posting, and understand more about how our products are appearing in the wild and how people are using them to build their own identities,” noted Rogers.

The executive asserted that the intention is not to hog talent discovered through the process for exclusive use by the luxury behemoth:

“For us it’s not about having any kind of exclusivity, we’d be very happy with Heuritech working with competition and things outside of luxury, of course. For us we really believe that a healthy start-up ecosystem is good for the entire industry, that rising tide lifts all boats, so it’s in all of our interest to support and help startups in this way to help guide them and help them find the product-market fit, experiment with them win, lose — go all the way through.”

Holographic image specialist Orbis took part in the show last year, and its co-founder said the event helped get the company off the ground, thanks to contact with LVMH and other luxury companies.

“Viva Tech is really the event that launched our business because we were able to make contact with LVMH and other luxury brands like Lancôme and Lancel and this was followed by business meetings,” said Adrien Dalberto, general manager and cofounder. The company animated Christmas displays for Hermès, creating an owl hologram that tugged at a flapping silk scarf, pulling it over winged shoulders. The animation was tucked into a mossy tree at the brand’s George V store in Paris in December.

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