Just Over the Virtual Horizon

Sometimes seeing the expected happen faster than anticipated can be more alarming than the entirely unexpected happening. Virtual and augmented reality becoming a tool to create new customer experiences was inevitable, this should be no surprise. The speed at which these technologies are being adopted by even the most traditional of businesses is, however, somewhat surprising.

Over the past year, more and more B2C businesses have embraced AR as a means of engaging with customers. Lowe’s, for example,  teamed with Microsoft to explore an augmented reality in-store experience. While Microsoft’s HoloLens is no surprise (it was announced a few years ago after Google’s failure with Google Glass), the speed at which Microsoft has partnered with retailers to build new customer experiences is. Beyond Microsoft, other major players are moving quickly into VR. Google has released several Android phone accessories to provide VR capabilities without the need for new hardware. Contrasted with expensive, stationary setups like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR, it’s clear that Google is looking to get a lower-powered VR experience into as many hands as possible.

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But through the continuous churn over VR and its place in the consumer world, augmented reality began to emerge with a clearer, more compelling use case. Google announced Project Tango, an SDK and set of hardware specifications to enable smartphones to provide a true next-generation AR experience through functionality such as depth perception and analysis of the live video feed coming from the phone's camera.

As 2016 drew to a close and I began to look toward 2017 and beyond, it became increasingly obvious that the means of engaging with a customer is evolving faster than today’s commerce platforms can support.

Shoppers are spending more time ‘in-app’, social media platforms have extended their platforms to support ‘in-context’ transactions, and some of the fastest growing regions are moving beyond the web-based storefront into new channels powered by messaging apps.

When we take these rapidly changing means of customer engagement, and turn back to our observations about AR and VR above, a vision for the future of customer engagement begins to become clear: ‘environment as channel’. Let’s explore some of these use cases.

The Furniture Shopper

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Cassie, a loyal Restoration Hardware customer, has recently moved into a new apartment with a larger living room. She now has room for additional seating, but doesn't want to measure each space, write them down, and go hunting for product dimensions online. Instead, Cassie launches the retailer's app on her phone and opens the AR experience. She’s asked what type of room she’s shopping for, and instructed to slowly pass the phone’s camera around the room, panorama style.

The app uses what the retailer knows about Cassie, in addition to image analysis of the existing décor and furniture in the room, to start suggesting not just products but their placement in the space. It does this by drawing them on the screen, inviting Cassie to walk around and view it from multiple angles. Cassie is able to easily swipe products away to indicate her interest or dislike.

The New Home Buyer or Remodeler

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Today a builder must build multiple demonstration homes and is limited in the variety of floorplans and finishing materials they can easily display to prospective buyers. Using VR technology, a couple building their dream home can enter a virtual world and view every possible customization available from the builder. Floor plans, window styles, kitchen layouts, cabinet colors, hardware, anything.

This technology could not only allow the builder to sell higher-margin finishes and accessories, but would substantially reduce the need and associated expenses for model homes.

As we saw with Lowe's and HoloLens, the opportunity to help drive DIY business by empowering homeowners to find their ideal fit and finish is clear. Additionally, guides and tutorials could be delivered through an AR interface, further enabling retailers like Lowe's to extend their DIY business.

The Space Planner

Remodeling retail stores, or even just updating Plan-o-grams, are extremely complex and expensive endeavors for retailers. A space planning team could meet in VR to build the store’s new layout by simple pushing walls around, moving giant gondolas, and cycling through signage. They could easily move product around to create the perfect Plan-o-gram and ensure it looks right no matter how unique each store may be.

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At the store, associates tasked with resetting an area could launch an app on a smartphone and immediately see all the product positions that need to be changed. They would then simply follow what they see in AR to reset the section, no paper or interpretations needed.

These are just a few examples, but each demonstrates the potential for AR and VR in commerce. As with customer engagement moving beyond the web storefront, we must acknowledge customer engagement in new channels that we cannot even yet envision. How can be we prepared to not just support this, but lead in the space?

Supporting AR and VR experiences will require a new set of tools. Today a web or mobile storefront requires product images, categorization, product details, offers, and other creative data. AR and VR drastically increase these requirements to not just 3D models of products, but also texture and color data, style and other information to help drive suggestions, and all the processing power to make use of new, real-time streams of data.

We must also support a variety of means of transacting. Customers will want to complete their purchases in these environments, so the concept of a cart, purchasing information, and payment must adapt to support these means of engagement.

Microsoft and Google are clearly working on this. Each is using their advantages (HoloLens and Azure for Microsoft; ‘we know everything about you’, Android, and Project Tango for Google) to test the waters in this space. As they do, providers of marketing and commerce engagement platforms such as Adobe, SalesForce (with Demandware), and SAP will start to think about how to serve the back end of these technologies (3D models, customization and targeting, and payment).

The future of eCommerce lies beyond the website, in channels we can’t yet envision. We must be prepared to embrace and capitalize on these channels at a moment’s notice. So the question is, "what can we do to not just prepare for this, but to embrace and lead the change?"

And, if we can help it, avoid looking like this...