Creating a Virtual Shopping Space Experience: the Third Space in Retail

“With as much as £1bn of revenue up for grabs in the home décor market alone, retailers can no longer overlook the value of virtual and augmented reality as a commercial tool.”
– David Levine; CEO, DigitalBridge

When Future Visual won an Innovate UK immersive retail competition at the end of 2015, the timing could not have been more perfect. What followed was the chance for the Brighton-based VR company to work with John Lewis on developing a new VR experience to help launch a new homeware brand; The Design Project.

The Design Project by John Lewis was the first ever range created by its in-house design team. As a brand, the Design Project has taken a progressive approach to design to reflect how we live today and will do in the future. In launching such a high profile and unique range, John Lewis was faced with a challenge all too familiar to high street retailers; how can they showcase their full range in store where space is at a premium?

Introducing this new range using immersive technologies gave John Lewis the chance to address this issue in an innovative way that resonated with the ethos of the Design Project brand. They tasked Future Visual with the brief of giving customers access to the full inventory and product range that wasn’t physically available.

Future Visual’s response was to create a VR experience that fulfilled the brief in two ways; it provided John Lewis with the chance to showcase the breadth of the Design Project range to customers in a realistic and accessible way, as well as providing an added value, experiential experience for customers in store.

Why was virtual reality chosen?

Future Visual’s Founder, Tim Fleming believes that VR offered the more advanced technology at the time of project development, giving them the chance to produce an experience that was more realistic and immersive for the customer.

“We wanted to create a fully immersive experience that took the participant’s full attention – and also allowing them to experience a multiple environment experience. VR gave us the chance to create this in a way that would not have been possible if using other immersive technologies.”
– Tim Fleming; Founder, Future Visual

The VR experience transported customers to an apartment entirely furnished with Design Project furniture and décor. Once in the experience, participants had the chance to move around the room and interact with the products. Products could be selected by using the HTC controllers and be picked up to get a closer and 360 view. It was also possible to change the colour of items to view the whole range, including furniture, wall colours, wallpaper and flooring. When selecting items, additional information would appear, including the product description, price and how to order.

Ensuring the experience truly reflected real life, participants could also change the time of day to see the impact of different light on the look and feel of the products.

The development process

The experience took around nine months to define and develop, from the initial meeting with John Lewis through to it appearing in store for customers to experience.

Taking a collaborative approach was crucial for the successful delivery of the project.  “It was completely seamless for us to work with the designers and bring the Design Project to life” explains Tim. Working directly with the product designers gave the Future Visual team an advantage when creating high quality, realistic virtual environment. The designers shared 3D CAD files, as well as materials with Future Visual so that all products could be accurately replicated in the virtual space.

Unity Realtime was used to develop the project. Ensuring the virtual space looked as close to real life as possible was critical, so image optimisation took a significant amount of the development time.

Reaction from John Lewis customers

The project was available on weekends throughout September 2016 in John Lewis’ flagship Oxford Street store, present alongside curated Design Project products. The experience was accessed with a HTC Vive and John Lewis staff were trained to support customers throughout the experience. This helped to blur the lines between store and virtual space, maintaining the high-quality experience of shopping in store.

Customers were asked for their opinions on the experience, which was overwhelmingly positive. Comments included: “it totally changes the way you would shop for furniture”; “a great solution for people designing their houses”; “I love the fact that you can use it with different colour combinations… with different products next to each other to see what they look like and actually it brings something to life. This is really wicked; if John Lewis were to do something like this and put this in all their stores, it would set them apart from all the competition”

The future for immersive technologies in retail

Working on this project enabled the Future Visual team to refine their model for the potential of immersive technologies in the retail sector, and how it can be integrated with the existing customer experiences. Tim sees this in the form of different spaces. He explains further:

“If you look at physical stores, the first space experience, retailers have the chance to interact with customers and provide them with a peak brand experience. This curated space gives customers the chance to interact with products and experiential in-store activities. The first space is an expensive option for retailers – and risky. Then you have the second space; online, print and mobile. You don’t have any interaction with staff or inventory, but you do have a high degree of convenience and pricing confidence.

“The way we’re starting to position VR in retail is that VR can be the third space. What you can do is create a retail destination that is much smaller, so it can be a very small floorplan, it can still be staffed by John Lewis staff, but it has VR equipment in there. A third space where you can get a first space experience. VR can allow retailers to have much less risk, but still give customers a first space quality experience.”

Beyond VR, he believes augmented reality also has huge potential. From working on this project, he can see how the assets created in the VR experience could be applied in AR to complement the second space experience of home shopping. On this experience, customers were limited to a room that wasn’t their own so the breadth of products could be showcased together in different environments – something that wasn’t technically possible using AR. In the future, AR could potentially give customers the chance to download individual pieces and place them around their homes.

“Customers want to see how a product will look in their own home – both for style and to understand scale. There is a gap at this point in the customer journey at the moment and it is one that visualisation tools will fill in the near future, helping a considered purchase to feel less complex.”
– Christine Kasoulis; Buying Director, John Lewis

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Future Visual, HTC Vive, John Lewis, retail, Shopping, Unity, VR