Virtual reality has gotten a lot of favorable press lately as an up and coming "next big thing in retail." Big name brands from the North Face to Ikea have all thrown their hats into the ring, trying to build out the killer application for the technology that it seems every techspert is pitching as the greatest thing since sliced bread or the iPhone.
However, as if often the case with the early days of real next big things, as well as the many, many pretenders to the throne that never quite make the cut, the gap between the possibility and the actuality of us is still pretty impressive. That VR headsets, modeling and enhancements could change the face of retail online, in person and at all points in between is at this point becoming almost a passé belief. The slightly more technical details of how and when, well, those are a bit fuzzy at this point.
“Right now, VR commerce is still in its infancy stage, and like most new technologies, is also still in the novelty stage,” said Joe Kleinwaechter, vice president of innovation and design at Worldpay. “The period of curiosity driving people into the store just to try the experience out will then be followed by a period of exploration during which consumers and businesses will try to see what real problems can be solved with the new technology."
Solving for a real problem, however, is where Wayfair enters this story - as the potential of helping customers be there digitally when they can't be there physically actually solves a lot of problems when your speciality is selling home furnishings on the web. Because furniture and home goods offer a sort of unique problem: They can look good in a picture, they might look good in a showroom - heck they might even look good in a customer's living room, except that living room has the poor taste of being 100 square feet too small. No matter how stylish that new couch, it just doesn't look right (or leave its buyer enough usable floor space), and it probably never will.
But what if a customer could actually see the couch in their living room without having to physically put it there? That is the question that Wayfair's team was asking when it first started coming around to the idea of virtual reality-enhanced commerce.
"At the end of the day, we’re trying to help our customers better visualize the product," Wayfair's Mike Festa noted in an interview. Festa, backed by Wayfair co-founder and co-chairman Steve Conine, heads up Wayfair's VR and AR team. A two-year veteran of the firm, he is an early adopter and developer of VR with a simple vision: get out ahead of where the market is inevitably going.
How is Wayfair doing that, and can it be a game-changer?
A Simple Solution For A Straightforward Problem
A furniture shopper has many possible goals, but all furniture shoppers' arguably share at least one: buying the right sized furniture. Which makes it little surprise that the first AR/VR applications built for Wayfair solved exactly that issue: letting customers know if a given piece of furniture will fit properly in a room. It was a prototype Fest built in an attempt to combine his passion for VR with his job as a software engineering at Wayfair.
The prototype he developed is a virtual interior planner that allows users to customize a simple living room by changing the models and textures of a furniture set using the Oculus Rift. That developed into a more advance prototype built on Google's Project Tango development kit that allows users to size furniture for a specific room (i.e. one from their own home).
That product developed into Wayfair View AR App, which is designed to allow shoppers to visualize furniture and décor in their homes by virtually placing products from Wayfair’s catalog in their rooms at full-scale.
Wayfair View is laying the groundwork for new innovations that will change the face of retail — all with first-party technology,” Conine noted. “By digitizing our vast catalog through 3-D scanning, we will dramatically improve the visualization of products to create the best possible shopping experience for our customers. With smartphone augmented reality, we can take this a step further.”
And it is a step that is popular, or at least one that is generating some favorable early buzz.
"This type of app shows the potential for augmented reality and how it can be used by enterprises to give their customers a much better feel for their products and even services," said Dan Olds, an analyst with the Gabriel Consulting Group. "I can see a wide variety of businesses adopting this approach as the technology becomes better. Architects and contractors will be able to show homeowners exactly how a new addition will blend onto their existing home, for example. Retailers will be able to show you how a particular outfit will look on you. All of this allows consumers to make more informed decisions."
So is it time to break out those party hats?
Well, you might want to just hold off. Wayfair has certainly found a popular and practical use for AR/VR. But not one that is going to be widely available.
The Fine Print
Though buzzed about widely, Wayfair View is more likely than not going to get a rather narrow launch since it will only work on a narrow range of products. And by narrow, we mean it will only work on a single product. Oh, and that product is not on the market yet. Apparently the product visualization technology will only work on an upcoming smartphone by Lenovo called the Phab2 Pro, as the camera lens is critical to make the tech work at this point.
Moreover, wide rollout is going to present challenges, because this is the rare product where approximately and less than perfect functionality transfer between operating systems or hardware can be a product killing problem. Said simply, for this application to be worth anything at all, it has to be extremely reliably accurate in most cases.
"If the app does everything it says it will do, and does it quickly, accurately and looks representative of reality, then I think it will do quite well," notes Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Accuracy is very important with this app, and if it's off by a half inch, it could be an issue. Speed is important, too, as consumers don't want to wait around for long... If it doesn't deliver on those vectors, it will become a problem."
So has Wayfair found the killer retail VR app? Not yet, not until it can get a lot more scalable.
But they are out ahead and thinking about practical problems instead of fanciful applications.
Which means it is well worth watching.