Next Store: The Digital Discussion

Challenges and opportunities in visualizing projects via AR and VR
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Posted January 22, 2019

This article was originally published in VMSD's December 2018 issue.

During this past October’s International Retail Design Conference (IRDC), produced by VMSD, I had the honor of hosting augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) roundtable discussions each day during lunch. This allowed me to listen to attendees’ questions and ongoing challenges around finding the best path forward with the fast-paced tech developments in visualization. Almost everyone loves the idea of what technology can provide end users, but they’re struggling to get past the basics, including how to monetize new advancements.

VR and AR advances continue to make headlines in our industry, including here in this column. Take for example Macy’s (Cincinnati) recent foray into VR/AR furniture shopping in partnership with 3-D streaming company Marxent (St. Petersburg, Fla.). It was reported that customers who used the in-store technology at three pilot stores increased their basket size by 60 percent, according to a Macy’s press release. The technology is expected to be scaled to about 60 Macy’s stores and offers the added benefit of a larger assortment in less floor space, thanks to great content.

For now, AR is a tool for brand experiences, training and for addition of features onto an existing physical structure(s), like interiors or buildings. AR is better suited for in-store customer experiences, whereas VR is truly a tool for the designer and architect. Yet, there remain questions about where to start and how to approach content strategy and development.

Estimated VR/AR headset sales are projected to reach 18 million by 2021, according to Consumer Technology Association (Arlington, Va.) research. So why is the design community having such a hard time developing a dedicated technology department? There’s been no clear strategy or designated person(s) to lead the charge into what I think could become a significant profit center for design and architecture firms. Most are amazed at what can be done in a high-resolution VR environment, but are lost in the internal versus external conversation that keeps this tech off the client menu far too often.

The first question to ask is, do we want to use VR/AR as in-house tools only, or will we offer the experience to our clients? As basic as this sounds, it’s critical to map out how the investment in both hardware and content development will be attributed to project management. It should be incorporated into your enterprise resource planning or else it’s treated like a toy, which it’s not. This is the future, and your client expects you to be primed to speak to it, or risk your competitor leaping past you.

Once you have that decided, the next question is about the hardware with regards to VR. There are two types of VR devices: one that is connected to a PC or gaming laptop, or one that uses a smartphone-based mobile headset. (What’s ahead? Look for rapid developments in the coming year in standalone headsets as tech moves beyond the tethered configuration, and as 5G comes into the market, it will deliver great strides for an untethered experience.)

So what do I use? The HTC Vive is my preferred hardware for showcasing immersive experiences for several reasons, but it does require a tethered connection to a VR-ready laptop or tower. The Vive comes with two wireless controllers that allow the user to navigate (i.e. teleport) to various points throughout your created experience. Rather than stay stuck in perspectives that offer no natural navigation, the Vive uses “room scale” tracking technology that allows the user to move within the 3-D space and use the controllers to interact with their environment.

Another key aspect of using high-quality VR in an immersive format is as a sales and employee training program. Like in marketing sales, the future of VR is based on the environments we’re creating. Clients don’t mind investing in VR if you make clear to them all of the uses and benefits; very few want VR for a single use.

More and more, developer’s marketing departments want a visualization tool that goes beyond the geometry to an experience tool to help sell, whether at entitlement or as a leasing tool. This is where the financial benefits begin to make sense, since marketing dollars can help your firm deliver a killer visual solution.

While this is a change in the way in which we think about selling architecture and design, we as an industry need to understand that selling technology experience extends deeper into the user side, and that’s how you unlock the magic and profits of selling with AR and VR.