Next Store: Virtual Reality Has Arrived

Showcasing and presenting designs is evolving with the use of virtual and augmented reality
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Posted August 10, 2016

I was recently in downtown Los Angeles while the innovative Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) was setting up shop at the convention center, and I became intrigued when I learned that more than 70,000 attendees were expected. E3 is produced annually by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and is the definitive global video game event, showcasing approximately 1600 various tech products.

A trade show that garners that level of attendance must serve an active and dynamic marketplace. And, where there are gamers, there is bound to be digital innovation occurring that will, no doubt, drive discussions surrounding virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for the coming years. 

This ever-evolving market is one that those of us in the retail sphere should look to for inspiration, or at least keep our collective eye on. Moreover, experience outcomes from these types of events will serve as benchmarks as designers seek to incorporate more interactive experiences into retail projects. As a digital strategist, I began thinking about how AR and VR in modeled worlds aren’t all that dissimilar to our architectural designs.

In searching for other venues showcasing this technology, another event, hosted by the Society for Experiential Graphic Design (SEGD) at San Francisco-based Gensler’s Los Angeles office, caught my eye. I hadn’t realized before this that others within the design community had already recognized that the gaming industry offered solutions for the future of retail presentations.

At the event, Gensler associate and experience designer Alan Robles told the crowd that he believes advanced visualization technologies, including AR and VR, allow design to jump from the page or screen into the emerging 3-D and 4-D worlds that exist in the gaming industry. “We work in a 3-D end-result for our clients, yet we communicate in a 2-D manner,” Robles explained. 

The applications of 3-D visualization technology extend far beyond the entertainment or gaming industries. It has evolved into a useful tool for a wide variety of professional purposes, including architecture, as evidenced by Gensler’s use of the technology in showcasing its projects to its clients. Through 3-D images, architects can communicate and sell their ideas to customers with greater clarity. 

Robles shared how this approach was key to the firm’s recent work with Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.) for the creation of its New York flagship (featured in VMSD’s March 2016 issue). The project was modeled using computer-aided drafting (CAD) software to create a virtual store. Stakeholders could then log in to the virtual space remotely, allowing multiple users to interact and participate in live design reviews within the digital environment. This tool facilitated decision-making by offering a more complete understanding of merchandising and customer paths through the space.

Currently, the main trend is visualization with VR, which offers the ability to enter a designed digital space, navigate through it and interact with its elements to achieve a complete experience. Many virtual reality devices are available, but even the best hardware is useless without a system that provides high-quality content.

This technology is of great value for the customer. Other forms of display, such as AR and mixed reality, also combine real content in a digital context, but they do not provide the possibilities of interaction that VR does. Just imagine how important it will be to have the opportunity to tour a project as if you were standing in it, choose the equipment, change the materials and try different combinations to suit your taste, all in a matter of seconds.

We’ve entered the “experience economy,” and whether we’re working in visual merchandising or store design, we’ve arrived at a point where virtually putting a client inside the spaces we design will be as much a part of the experience as our beautiful, although dated, printed collateral pieces showcasing our past work.

In a world where technological advances occur quickly, the future of virtual reality will continue to have a major influence on the way our designs are experienced and sold. However, neither the development nor the application of these systems would be possible without the creativity and direction of designers and architects. In the end, that’s the human quality that drives us forward and enables us to create the exceptional client work we all strive for every day.

Brian is the director of digital strategy & experience design for Atmospheric Design Group, a strategy and design studio headquartered in New York. Follow him on Twitter @briandyches.