The Case for Going Virtual - Part 1
The promise and allure of virtual reality has long been the dream to completely transport the user to a created, fantastical world completely of our own imagining. These made-up spaces were taken to their most fanciful extremes and made popular by Star Trek’s holodeck, a room that can be anything - a 50s detective novel, an alien planet, or even just a simulation of a meeting taking place in a few hours.
Our real-world pursuit of this dream brings us the very real technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, collectively known as Extended Reality (XR). While entertainment is most definitely a huge use case, this technology can be leveraged for business purposes, bringing the customer into a company’s vision of the world, in which their products and services are central.
Of course, with Augmented Reality technology, businesses don’t need to bring a customer into their world - they can enter the customer’s world instead. With AR technology, one’s mobile device acts as a metaphorical lens through which the user can view the contents of a parallel dimension, previously hidden.
In a post-pandemic world, marketers and businesses are leaning in to ever more creative and innovative ways to reach customers. According to one study, the global VR market is forecasted to grow from USD 5.34 Billion in 2017 to USD 56.25 Billion by 2025. For years, marketers have been trying to put images in the mind of the customer - but with VR and AR technology, the customer’s mind can be transported into the image.
There are numerous applications for this technology, including (but not limited to) try-before-you-buy retail previews, virtual real estate tours, and education and training.
At TechGuilds, our love for innovation has led us to ask ourselves how we can extend Sitecore to let content authors create their own VR and AR experiences without needing a lot of custom development. Our solution is PEEK, a tool which allows content authors to easily create new VR and AR applications using the same powerful editor that powers Sitecore websites. This integration with Sitecore also allows for the deployment of VR/AR experiences that don’t require the downloading and installation of another app. Because Peek is a web application, all the user needs is a browser. As smartphone use is nearly ubiquitous nowadays, the barrier for entry for the user is nearly non-existent, smartphones containing all the hardware and software you need out the gate: cameras and browsers.
There remains in the industry a question of viable use cases. The flashy demos and fun gimmicks that virtual and augmented reality tend to engender don’t always give businesses confidence in the usefulness of these technologies. Certainly, there are awkward and unwieldy ways to use these technologies that, though fun, don’t translate to conversions in the way a well-designed website might.
At TechGuilds, we simply believe that XR is an important part of a holistic approach to multi-channel marketing. As the customer’s journey crosses over from web, app, advertising, and e-mail experiences, and while personalized content follows, we believe XR can and should be part of this journey. An experience in a web-based XR app can inform the content that you choose to show a customer in the future. Likewise, experiences customers have with the web can inform the content they engage with in XR. Indeed, an XR experience might be the first step a customer has into your business, or even more importantly, the last step on board.
What follows is an examination of a series of use cases, grouped by category. While toys and games are fun, we decided for this piece to focus primarily on applications for education, training, retail, and virtual tours.
Part one will focus on discussing the possibilities surrounding virtual tours and retail. Part two will explore our perspective around training and education.
Virtual Reality presents a wonderful opportunity to transport users to another place entirely, be it a real-world location, a fantasy setting, or a modern art space. The most common application for virtual tours right now tends to be real estate, which can answer a potential tenant’s questions about a space much better than mere photographs. For example, Zillow, a popular platform for finding housing, utilizes 360 photo-spheres to give prospective tenants and buyers a preview that they could previously only get by visiting the space. Other industries are beginning to utilize virtual tours as well, such as the hospitality industry.AirBNB, for example, are at work developing VR applications for before a trip, and AR applications for during a trip.
There are numerous tools that support this technology as well, Google’s Tour Creator among them. This tool makes virtual spaces as simple to create as powerpoint presentations. Instead of slides, there are “rooms,” and instead of bullet points, there are “points of information.” These tours can be viewed with VR goggles or even just Google Cardboard, a literal cardboard housing that turns one’s smartphone into a VR headset.
TechGuilds’ Peek brings this capability to the world of Sitecore. With Peek not only will you have the ability to create and edit virtual tour experiences but you’ll also consolidate your content on an enterprise-level CMS and digital experience platform. This means it also comes with the features you expect from that powerful platform, such as deep analytics and cross-channel personalization. If a user seems particularly interested in a data point, that interest will be logged in the system and used in personalization logic down the road, to provide custom experiences across all other channels.
Peek is compatible with and leverages a powerful technology called Matterport that can actually create a 3D model of a space, as opposed to connected 360 photo spheres, purely through the use of photographs. The technology uses these series of photographs to create the 3D models, which can be interacted with in a more subtle and direct way than clicking on waypoints to transport to different photo spheres. The 3D model also allows the user to view a “dollhouse” cutaway of the space, and view it from all angles.
TechGuilds’ Peek technology is capable of importing Matterport scans for use in web XR solutions, combining easy editing and personalization with the accuracy of a Matterport 3D model.
Both augmented reality and virtual reality provide plenty of opportunities for retail applications. Augmented reality can give users more information on a product they see in the real world, or show somebody what their life may look like with a product in it. Virtual reality also offers users the opportunity to shop in virtual spaces, such as virtual stores, or other interesting spaces that happen to lead to commerce opportunities.
One of the coolest applications of Augmented Reality technology is the ability to show users how their lives may look differently with a product or service in it. With AR tech, users can preview what products will look like in their homes, using applications such as Amazon AR View.
Amazon AR view lets users place virtual products in their home in order to preview what they would look like in real-life scale. No more taking out a tape measure then trying to see it in your mind’s eye - just look at a phone! IKEA also has an application called Place, which lets users scan their rooms and test how different pieces of furniture look in their homes. Wayfair, another furniture company, offers an app that does much the same thing.
Beauty companies such as Sephora also use AR to let users preview what makeup will look like on their faces without having to buy any. This is as much of a time-saving device as much as it is one for advertising - having to take off makeup to put on a different kind of makeup would take minutes in the real world. With augmented reality, it takes an instant.
NIKE has an AR application that allows people to actually measure their feet - “with accuracy within 2 millimeters”. With these measurements, NIKE can offer the user the correct size of shoe in their desired style of choice. NIKE also augments these recommendations with AI machine learning to see which users with certain sized feet are buying which shoes. This is a perfect example of a multi-channel use case for XR.
Of course, you may actually want to see what these shoes look like on your feet. The Wanna Kicks app by Wannaby lets the user do just that, modeling different shoes from different brands on the users’ feet with the use of augmented reality.
AR also allows users to learn more about a real-world product, location, or item of any kind by showing information attached to a “marker,” a sign the AR application recognizes on the item in question. “Context” is the key word here, for greater context provides greater meaning. For example, the Living Wine Labels app allows users to scan a wine label to view information on its background. These users can learn about the history of the vineyard the wine is from, or expand their connoisseur skills by reading tasting notes about the wine and expanding their pallet’s vocabulary.
In mainstream retail, Wal-Mart has an AR app that allows users to do price checks right from their phone. This app also gives the user more information on the product, including reviews, and offers other related products they may want to buy.
A similar idea is used for Candide’s garden labeling app, which recognizes plant types in a user’s garden, lets the user label them, and gives them information about those plants and what makes them healthy. Candide ties their AR technology into a social network of gardeners, turning what is typically a solo activity into one that branches out into a community. Gardeners can offer each other advice, sell their supplies on a marketplace, and ask questions to the community.
TechGuilds also uses an expanded information AR technique on our business cards, which you may have seen if you’ve ever visited our booth at Sitecore Symposium. Our business cards have a QR code on them, which brings the user to a Peek WebXR application when scanned. After granting the application camera access, the user can look at the cards through the application and see more information about the TechGuilds employee, including a photo and areas of expertise. This information, “projected” into 3D space, will match the angle of the card in real time, creating an immersive AR experience.
If your client can’t interface with a product or location in the real world, you may want to fully alter their reality and create an entire virtual reality retail experience for them. In a virtual store, your customer can navigate through the “aisles” and pick products that look interesting to them. Mastercard and Refinery29 teamed up to create such an experience. This virtual reality retail space is similar to the virtual tours described above, with linked 360 photo spheres, and information points related to products. Users can look at these information points for details about a product and ways to buy it.
Ebay and Myer created a more advanced solution for the “first ever virtual department store,” which not only used VR with advanced 3D graphics, but included personalization, so that users would be shown items they were most likely to buy. Peek supports this as well with the added benefit of managing all content including 3D content in one CMS platform.
While games such as Pokemon GO may require teams of developers, there are less resource-intensive gameplay solutions with which to engage customers. Foot Locker, for example, launched an AR scavenger hunt in which users found clues throughout the city, leading them to a limited-edition pair of Lebron’s (while they were still in stock). Scavenger hunts are great for getting people to interact with the real world in ways they wouldn’t otherwise, and are a clever way to direct a potential customer’s eyes in retail environments that are becoming increasingly experientially-focused.
In part 2, we will take a look at possible use cases of XR in training and education
Related: We are offering Peek WebXR licenses for free - find out more