In Search Of The Next-Gen AR/VR Retail/Payments Experience

While many in the Greater Boston area stayed indoors to keep clear of the arctic chill that had descended upon the region, ten teams hunkered down in offices in the middle of the Financial District with another goal in mind: reimagining the retail and payments experience using AR/VR technologies.

These developers, programmers and designers were competing in the Virtual 2 Reality Challenge, powered by Discover Global Network and — a weekend-long hackathon touting a $10,000 grand prize. The challenge, part of the Innovation Project 2017’s program, was as follows: Teams of two to six team members were asked to create a next-generation virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) consumer experience in under 48 hours.

Payment-enabled, of course.

Participants were able to create VR or AR consumer experiences for Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens or HTC Vive. The hackathon began at 8 p.m. on Friday; participants had until noon on Sunday to complete their work.

“For a lot of the people here,” said Brian Collins, chief marketing officer at AngelHack, “this is their first time interacting with this technology. They’ve spent a good few hours starting to understand.”

The Challenge

Even as the competition kicked into high gear that afternoon, the mood in the office was light. Energy drinks were plentiful, and a spread of catered foods was available in the dining hall. One room in the office stuffed a number of adult-sized beanbag beds, perfect for power naps between bouts of programming.

Many of the participants took a short break from their work, shuffling to the dining area to attend a workshop, a crash course in how to create an effective product pitch. They were told, on the consumer experience end, to focus on ease and intuitiveness, effectiveness and emotion.

Industry buzzwords — optimization, enabling — held more meaning, carried a greater sense of urgency under the creative time crunch. They would only have three minutes to make their case to the judges. Where V2R differs from a traditional hackathon, Collins noted, is that normally the pitch is the only chance developers have to showcase their creations. But an adequate assessment of AR/VR experiences requires a bit more of a hands-on approach.

“It’s very different than if you’re just doing a software hack, and even most hardware hacks,” Collins said, “where you can see someone else go through the experience and you can put yourself in their shoes. With AR/VR, you really need to be a part of the experience for it to be effective.”

That means that after each team gave their product pitch, the judges would sample the wares firsthand, sort of like a science fair.

Each team’s build was to be judged on five criteria. The first was functionality: what industry problem the experience solves and how effectively it addresses that consumer need. Second, judges would appraise the design elements of the build, looking at overall appearance as well as how easy and intuitive the experience is to navigate.

The Challengers

Creativity and overall quality, how well the product showcased and if it stood out among current market offerings also counted toward final scores. Finally, judges would assess the potential marketplace impact of each build, something that was likely on the mind of every participant in the V2R Challenge.

Charity Everett, leader of one of the teams competing in the hackathon, said, “I think VR and AR are going to revolutionize every possible industry. One of the first ones that will start seeing the benefits of it will be eCommerce.”

Everett has a significant background in the AR/VR space. She currently works for a startup based out of MIT that works to visualize the effects of climate change on the southern Florida coast using storytelling, data visualization and group simulation in VR.

As for the technologies in the commerce space, Everett created a HoloLens AR application for Wayfair this past summer that allows users to digitally place furniture and other items in their home before purchase.

“Online shopping is already a huge phenomenon,” Everett said. The more immersive you can make the online shopping experience — that’s only going to increase the amount that people participate.”

At V2R, Everett and her team were working to gamify the loyalty and rewards experience. The game takes place post-purchase in a VR commerce space. Everett said her team’s game allows users to rack up loyalty points by playing, with the game’s particular theme determined by what consumers are trying to save up for.

“Our demo is centered around a person who is trying to gain enough points to get a flight to Tahiti,” Everett said. “It looks like you’re on an island, and you’re playing a themed game.”

Think Candy Crush with jet skis and beach balls.

The game also incorporates social aspects, Everett said, which allows for groups of people to work together in the loyalty game space toward common goals. Users can track other people’s progress — either congratulate others if they hit a certain goal or nudge them if they’re not raking in enough points.

Another team, headed by ‎Senior Software Developer at Raizlabs Michael O’Brien with Raizlabs Designer Samantha Broccoli, was working to create a shopping experience for the Oculus Rift headset. The team was leveraging the VR technology’s motion tracking capabilities.

“Oculus comes with hand controllers and can track how your fingers are positioned to a degree,” O’Brien said. “So you can actually reach out and feel like you’re grabbing things. Our demo primarily focuses on seeing objects that you want to buy, comparing them and then going through a checkout flow.”

The goal is to allow consumers to compare and contrast the texture, size and quality of items before making a digital purchase — an essential element currently missing from traditional online shopping experiences. Shoppers sometimes have to guess and gamble on size or go to physical stores to be sure.

O’Brien gave some examples: “If you’re buying a tent, perhaps you can actually see how big it is by looking inside of it. If you’re buying a purse, you can see if it’s the right size, if it’s too small in your hands. It will move with your hands and track.”

As for the design elements, the team didn’t just want to recreate a real-life shopping experience in the digital realm.

“We’re working on making it a fantastical experience,” Broccoli said, “where there are elements you wouldn’t get if you were shopping in the real world while still giving the full feeling of interacting with the products.”

In the future, the VR shopping environment could reflect the type of products for sale, the team said.

“We’re starting with a high-end looking room with purses and umbrellas and other objects in it,” she noted. “But if you were selling, say, camping gear, that would be outside and just to have it be relevant to what you’re buying.”

Even in the fantastical space, the user interface allows consumers to pull up relevant product information such as the dimensions or the material composition. Given the limited time the hackathon provides, the team focused primarily on the user/product interaction space for their demo. Even so, they had some ideas as to how to deal with the checkout process down the line.

“You’re in virtual reality, so you can’t read your card info,” Broccoli said. “We’re hoping that that’s all sort of done upfront and you save your payment profile.”

Authentication could be undertaken with biometric thumb scans on the hand controllers, they noted, or by holding down the triggers for a certain amount of time to signal intent to purchase.

“We don’t want you to be picking something up and accidentally hitting the buy button, and now you have something being mailed to you,” O’Brien said.

While much of the past focus on VR and AR has been in the gaming space, said AngelHack’s Collins, the teams competing in the Virtual 2 Reality Challenge were approaching the technologies from new and different angles.

Collins noted, for example, that one team was focusing on developing a way for users to easily enter payment information in the VR space, with gesture controls and without a visible keyboard.

“That’s what I like about what the teams are working on here,” Collins said. “They’re all at this challenge not so much as how does it fit into the world of gaming, but on how this can become an extension of your normal life, how the AR/VR space can become an extension of what you normally do.”

Judging for V2R has been tasked to five industry experts: Joe Bonefas, VP of Business Technology at Discover Financial Services; Soumya Chakrabarty, Head of Payment Innovation at Discover Global Network; founder of Boston AR Neil Gupta; lead organizer of Boston VR Craig Herndon; and director, writer, DP, VR creator and producer Skye Von.

The top prize winner of the Virtual 2 Reality Challenge will be awarded at next week’s fifth annual Innovation Project, where the winning team will be invited to participate in a live demo and select judges from V2R will also be speaking.