The Reality of Virtual


By Tim Denman

Strolling the aisles of the NRF Big Show it became obviously very quickly that virtual reality was going to be a major theme at this year’s expo. Solutions providers both big and small had the still emerging tech on display inviting attendees to don the goggles and test drive their latest VR engines.

Having been itching to experience virtual reality for a while I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. The good people at SAS and Intel were gracious enough to let me play around with their demos and I was not disappointed.

First up was the SAS offering. While the analytics company has no immediate plans to offer a VR solution the team put together a fully operational model to showcase what could be possible with the new technology. In the simulation you act as a store manager, sitting high above the sales floor overlooking the action. Looking down you see aviators of shoppers strolling the aisles and are able to zoom in on each shopper and check vital information like dwell time. If, for instance, they have been standing in from of the big screen television display for an extended period of time you can summon a sales associate to answer any questions they might have and potentially close the sale.

As a side note, the SAS simulation is pretty convincing. Although the graphics are more video game than photo realistic, you can get lost in the environment. While sitting on my perch above the sales floor I momentarily forgot where I was in “reality, reality” and reached me hand out to grab the banister. But instead of touching the guard rail I was touching a SAS spokesperson. We all had a good laugh and no harm was done, but a word to the wise, if you have VR goggles on try to remain cognizant of you real-world surroundings.

At the Intel booth the tech leader was also showcasing a demo of its VR capabilities. Like the SAS experience the user is transported to the store environment, but this time you are in the cereal aisle of a Walgreen’s making merchandising decisions. As a Walgreen’s shopper who has spent some time in the cereal aisle I can vouch for the authenticity of the simulation ― it looks and feels like you are there.

While in the Walgreen’s VR you act as a merchandiser, able to view vital metrics on the performance of individual cereal brands. You can use these analytic insights to remove and/or add items to the shelf and rearrange the display. The most interesting part of the experience is that real-time analytics helps you design the display. It uses real-world data to predict the success and/or failure of the new layout taking into account packaging color and design, shelf height, promotions, etc. ― truly cool.

Intel, just like SAS, has no immediate plans to put this technology into the field, but a representative from Intel said it is just a matter of time. Once a critical mass of consumers have the technology in their homes, which he predicts will happen in two or three years, there will be an explosion of new use cases ― particularly in the market research arena. No longer will shoppers have to travel to a testing center to participate in market research group, rather they can just strap on their VR goggles and experience new stores, consumer goods, cars, etc.

While the use cases for the virtual reality technology in retail still remains in the “what if” category,  the possibility is certainly there for VR to become the next disruptive force for both the front and back of the house. We are still in the infancy of the emerging tech but it looks poised to grow up quickly. And if the simulations on display at NRF this year are any indication it should be a lot of fun to watch it mature.  


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