April 6, 2016
Virtual reality (VR) is growing to be one of the hottest topics this year, yet most of the applications we hear about are related to consumers or entertainment. Oculus began shipping units in the past week; HTC Vive is starting to ship this week; Playstation VR will be out in October; and a plethora of smartphone to VR headsets have been on the market for years. However, Chicago, IL-based Incontext Solutions is among the first organizations creating business driven experiences using VR. Their goal is to create VR solutions that allow retail shops, grocery stores for example, to optimize their in-store experience.
Bringing the Business
Founded in 2009, the company initially focused on how to stream virtual reality to the web. Their particular platform was designed for web-based VR, but can be applied to the new and future hardware coming out. Since launch, they have built a SaaS-based model where they can collaborate, gain intelligence from customers, and measure ROI. In essence, they create virtual retail stores so that product owners and manufactures can visualize how their product will look on shelves.
According to Incontext Solutions CEO Mark Hardy:
“80 percent of new products fail within three years. Build it, test it, roll it out. If you are creating a store, you make changes to normal flows that will alienate or attract customers. People are now more careful about what products they select. People go to stores to discover new products. They go up and down an aisle, you can’t really do that with ecommerce stores.”
Hardy went on to discuss how Apple and Tesla were even changing the typical retail environment. On one hand, Apple creates an experience with a select series of products, and even today most of their stores are often packed with consumers. For Tesla, their shopping experiences is just as different. You can go to a mall, visit a store right next to Abercrombie & Fitch, figure out what kind of car you want to try and pop over to the test drive lot.
“There is no salesman, it’s ‘here is my toy, come play with it’,” said Hardy. “For new products you have and you want to build and test this out over a year? You have to build prototypes. It all takes time. Prototypes look great on a white background, but when you put it in a store, with all that noise, it’s different. VR makes it easy to create the whole picture.”
This works particularly for new products, where it’s important to identify how their packaging appears side-by-side competing products, and where a customer’s eyes navigate to first. It’s sort of like eye-tracking for website optimization, but more immersive. Typically this would be a very costly test that was done in-person at a mock retail store. The company also compares results from their platform to test results from mock stores, and found the results to be “eerily similar.” Except for the fact that they gained the data in days rather than months.
“It all streams in real-time. For example, take a brand manager for Coke in North America. Someone on their sales team is in their office and chatting with someone from Walmart. Typically they use powerpoint, face-to-face, calls, etc. For testing, they do it in retail spaces,” said Hardy. “It eliminates all the cost and time in the process of ideating for a product, store, or aisle.”
As a result of their ability to stream in real-time, changes are just as quick. Simply refreshing the browser will allow the customer or client to reload the store and see what change was made. However, VR is not all fun and games, even though once you look at one of Incontext Solutions’ demos you’d probably think otherwise. One of the biggest questions according to Hardy is how people will make money from it.
“Typically they are thinking of the B2C market,” said Hardy. “What we are seeing in the B2B market, there is a sustainable model that builds a SaaS based model. It’s not about an app and hoping to get it free. It’s about allowing their own enterprise to go in and collaborate in real-time. Pitching ideas used to be verbal or a sketch, and now you can interact in real-time. You can make immediate changes, hit refresh and done.”
Because of Incontext Solutions’ process, they are also not reliant on head mounted displays or computer rigs with extensive specs.
Incontext Solutions’ Cards In Play
Even though the consumer side of VR is just starting to heat up, the business side has been around for years. From flight simulators and beyond, there is a lot of growth to be found.
“As a virtual company, our growth would be considered a high growth company. Double digit growth – 50 percent year-over-year or better. We will continue at that rate,” said Hardy. The company will also be raising another round of capital in the future, has just established an office in Europe, are expanding their product portfolio, and are growing globally.
“You can see your clients and say this is fun… work is fun again. You will see the acceleration of virtual this year and next with additional content. People imagined with B2C in mind, but it’s really about B2B,” said Hardy.
As far as learning curves go, they use a simple drag and drop system based on the gaming engine Unity. “We built it so grandma can use it on their computer. But with more head mounted displays coming, the requirements will expand,” said Hardy.
From Ecommerce to Brick and Mortar
Even though the world of VR is really only getting started, the sky’s the limit as far as business applications go. This year, most people will correlate VR to head mounted displays, but into the future there are great possibilities, taking over entire rooms. Consider the possibility of using one of the advance head mounted displays, entering a room filled with sensors, and ditching the strange treadmills and motion sensing controllers. VR will fully immerse a person, which will truly breach the digital divide. As such, the way consumers buy physical objects will change entirely, moving to vcommerce.
“With the proliferation of head mounted devices getting out there, the natural progression is into ecommerce. First we went to mobile commerce – mcommerce, the next step is vcommerce. We can easily connect our system into a POS system. “I can be sitting here with my son playing Black Opps, mom will say we have to go down to the store and pick up school supplies, and I can easily flip into the store and make a order,” said Hardy.
Hardy went on to discuss the positive business-related implications that would result from shopping through a vcommerce environment. According to Hardy, one of the biggest challenges for ecommerce retailers are upsells and cross-sells. There are recommended items presented that pair well with the current product, or even suggested items that cost more, but rarely are they selected. “If I could get one more product in the basket… sales go through the roof. With vcommerce it’s different. You are in a virtual store.”
VR as a whole is also progressing rapidly. According to Hardy, the software has been well ahead of the hardware that’s been available. “It will still get better. Another issue was latency. If you turn head, and there is a nano difference between what your eye sees and is physically occurring there was uneasiness. With the HTC Vive, I can put it on for 10-20 mins and feel fine. They are conquering the tech challenges. Now the challenge is getting the devices down to what consumers can afford.”
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