For this post in our eye for innovation series, I talked to Martin Allen (CEO of Virtual Retail) about how brands and their stores are shaping up for the future, and specifically how VR and eye tracking are helping to streamline the design process. We talked over Teams. Martin was comfortably ensconced in his home office in London and me in mine in California. Nine time zones might separate us, but technology brings us together without a glitch.
We spoke on the day England began easing restrictions following its third coronavirus lockdown. The first day in over three months that non-essential retail stores were able to open their doors - the perfect setting to talk about redefining retail.
Phygital - the best of both worlds
To say that the pandemic hit retail hard is nothing short of an understatement. Yet Martin echoes what many others in the tech industry are feeling: that the measures taken to control the spread of the virus have been a catalyst. He says they've squashed five years of development into one.
Virtual Retail brings the digital world together with the physical high-street store, to enable brands to deliver the same premium customer experience online or in-store; be it on 5th Avenue, Oxford Street, or Ginza.
Online enables brands to better understand their customers and the factors that drive loyalty because it generates data - what a person likes, what they don't like, what's in their basket, what they take out, and so on. In the high-street store, brands can curate messaging and optimize the product environment.
What's needed today, says Martin, is the best of both worlds:
Brands are looking to create a holy grail if you like. To combine the data-driven understanding of the consumer gained in an online world with the curation capabilities of the physical one. They want to make the most of phygital - the blending of physical and digital experiences.
Traditional store design starts with a concept in the form of sketches, mood boards, colors, perhaps some words, and some textures - ideas that transcend culture and the limitations of physical spaces. During development, concepts get translated into CAD drawings and 3D models, and eventually, they become a physical space, possibly with multiple variations. Thousands of decisions are made throughout the process, down to the details of the size of the logo on the branded coat hangers. Products, fittings, and lighting need to be sourced, ordered, shipped, and delivered.
As a primarily manual process, this way of working doesn't scale well. It lacks the ability to effortlessly copy-paste a design and rollout in multiple locations across continents. The process is further constrained by people working in various regions and in silos that lack agility.
For example, when a mock-up has been constructed, relevant stakeholders will fly in from all over to review it. This takes time and money, and yet it's unlikely to result in the best design. Why? Because, like most things people create, the further down the line we make changes, the more expensive they become and the more risk they expose. By the time a design has transitioned from a mood board to a physical space, people are less likely to provide objective feedback. We are bound by social norms and hierarchies, structures that create bias in decision-making processes. We avoid taking risks. We might not, for example, alter colors for fear of stepping too far outside of our comfort zones, or what is perceived to be solid elements of the brand identity. Instead, we stick to what we know. The result is often an outcome that may not necessarily be wrong, but perhaps not the best version of itself.
Understanding the challenge
A little over five years ago, Martin was working in real-estate visualization. Through his collaboration with commissioning retailers, he says it became glaringly obvious to him that the computer-generated imagery (CGIs) and fly-throughs his company was producing didn't answer their customers' questions fully - they couldn't provide the details about how things might look and feel. Fragmented design processes and poor collaboration resulted in large retailers simply adding people, processes, and applications on top of already sluggish legacy systems, resulting in slow and expensive ways of working, that delivered sub-optimal designs. What he was beginning to understand was the need for a cross-functional platform that everyone could work in - designers, marketers, management, consumer testers, trainees, and suppliers.
Martin says that faced with the physical version of a design concept, people often respond with:
'Oh, that's not how I imagined it!'
'This is the challenge we resolve,' he says
Virtual Retail's one-stop shop (no pun intended) is a single-source-of-truth platform for store design, space planning, visual merchandising, and wholesale sell-in. Using VR and web technologies, Virtual Retail helps brands to iterate conceptualization and revision of store design, run consumer testing, and deliver staff training - right up to opening day and beyond - all on the same platform.
The first part of the solution is virtualization - doing things with software that we once did with physical products. And the second part is creating a single source of truth. Why? Because together they reduce overall cost by enabling scale, generating insights, and promoting agility. Together they facilitate iteration - testing, refining, and retesting. And as Martin so eloquently put it:
It allows us to fail fast- for free!
Virtual Retail uses real-time VR and web technologies to solve different parts of the customer journey. On a basic level, VR provides a way for designers to collaborate across time zones, and it solves the need for people to meet in person - which we simply haven't been able to do since the outbreak of the coronavirus. At the same time, VR enables designers to express their ideas in a 3D space, which helps everyone on the team gain a shared understanding.
Once a design concept is complete, all you have to do is press a button to publish. Everything gets stored in a secure cloud, and the design is available immediately to all the necessary people in your organization.
And this is where Martin starts talking about failing for free.
A fantastic design is the iteration of many good designs. You can be a bit bolder and a bit braver because you can fail for free, and you can fail fast.
What VR enables is the ability to iterate and test different ideas. You can mix concepts, lose what doesn't work, and develop constructs that do. But best of all, you can start consumer testing early in the process - because that's who you are designing for. Designers and C-level execs will make decisions based on their professional perspective - which may not be the consumer point of view. VR makes it possible to do A/B and C testing. You can test a design on large groups. All you need to do is ship the headsets and use eye tracking to gather the results. And then it's easy to create a version D. And so on, until you've reached the best design. You cannot do that in the real world.
What floored me most was the number of mistakes and how the lack of a cross-functional platform has led to so much waste. I mean, it's a classic problem. Any process with multiple handovers and stakeholders is prone to error if there is no systematic way to follow through from start to finish. Still, the horror stories Martin tells would make anyone laugh.
We've heard this from all the clients we've worked with. Information is inaccurate and conflicting. People might think they're talking about the same thing, but because they are required to use their imagination to interpret a combination of sketches, CAD plans, and CGIs - what each person visualizes is individual. I've experienced one site where a whole set of fixtures were too tall to fit the premises, simply because somebody forgot to check that seemingly small detail for the location. Sometimes, twice as many lights than necessary have been ordered, because on paper it makes sense. But when you install it, it's too bright. These kinds of hiccups contribute to cost. What we provide is a means for everyone to share the same vision. Our platform provides hyper-realistic graphics and data that anyone can understand so that everyone is on the same page from the beginning to end - with decision making driven by data, and not by imagination and interpretation.
The Virtual Retail platform solves the problem they set out to solve - to enable brands to optimize store design, reduce time to opening, and improve sales performance. But that's only the beginning of the story. Over the years, their solution has expanded sideways (as Martin puts it) to support delivery, procurement, staff training, and consumer testing.
To test a design with VR, the traditional approach is to bring consumers into an open space, like a gym or a hangar, give them a VR headset, and let them walk around the virtual store. At the end, testers provide their feedback via a questionnaire. Unfortunately, our memory recall is rarely 100% accurate, and conscious bias skews our subconscious recollection of events, feelings, and thoughts. So, people sometimes unintentionally provide false evaluations. In some cases, a person may report what they think you want to hear rather than telling you how they really feel.
The good news is that you can easily fix this with eye-tracking-enabled VR headsets because these devices deliver data-based feedback. As Martin points out, eye tracking provides data points like pupil dilation, which can be combined with other biometrics such as heart rate - allowing brands to tap into a person's emotions - the principal driver of buying behavior. By following what the tester is looking at, for example, eye tracking can provide a heat map of what captures their attention. If everyone - even in A/B testing - looks at the same spot when they enter the store, then that's the primary placement for feature products or advertising.
Today, Virtual Retail uses 'packs' as they call them, from a variety of VR headset suppliers, including those with built-in Tobii eye tracking - such as HP's Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition, HTC's VIVE Pro Eye, and the PICO Neo 2 Eye. Martin says he is looking forward to the coming generation of headsets because of the detailed graphical representation they will deliver, with technologies like Tobii Spotlight Technology helping to provide deeper insight and support A/B testing with ad content, to reveal how people react to different images and text. Without getting into too much detail, Tobii Spotlight Technology enables dynamic foveated rendering and foveated transport, which in turn lower bandwidth requirements and computational load - on the headset and in the cloud - by rendering just the part of the image where the user is focusing in high resolution, and the periphery at progressively lower resolutions.
And it doesn't stop there!
The Virtual Retail platform contains a 3D model of every piece of furniture, every fitting, every product for sale, the lights, the colors, the wall coverings, and the advertising media. Virtual Retail works with suppliers to ensure that every virtual entity is an exact digital twin of its physical counterpart. Once a design has been completed, tested, refined, and approved, you can simply order the fittings and ship them to the correct destination. It is that simple.
If you imagine the entire 360-degree process of store design, in the beginning, we were focused on a small percentage of it. As we developed the platform, solving the problems at different stages, we realized it's all connected. And before you know it, we're now delivering the full 360-solution, because that is what was needed to solve the challenges retailers face.
To wrap up, big thanks to Martin for taking the time to talk, for his inspiration and patience with someone who prefers to shop online. As he says, everyone from designers to C-level execs who interact with their platform consistently describe it as holistic, game-changing, and revolutionary. They all have feedback. Mine would be this: I see great potential for store designs and using the tool for wholesale sell-in, but an even bigger one to create love stories between brands and consumers. If you want to know more about Virtual Retail, you can check out their website. And in the meantime, if you want to know more about Tobii's eye tracking and how it works in headsets, check out the Tobii VR website, or feel free to contact me.
Martin is the CEO and founder of Virtual Retail. He has been a pioneer in creative technology and visual production for 13 years. His wealth of experience working with Hollywood Film, Advertising, Lighting Design, Architectural Visualisation, and Retail has helped him identify and understand complex challenges and then imagine and deliver solutions that are changing the game. He has created multiple award-winning, world-first hardware, software, and content for clients such as 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, Universal, Philips, Microsoft, Samsung, JLL, CBRE, Adidas, and Dyson.