August 2, 2016
Sonia Schechter is the chief marketing officer for Marxent.
Sonia Schechter of Marxent on what VR means for retailers and customers.
They say content is king. And Sonia Schechter, chief marketing officer of Marxent, would agree. She envisions a future where all the products that people see—in print, online, and other digital channels—will be rendered in 3D. No more costly or one-off photo shoots will be needed and every view can be customized. To make that vision a reality, Marxent’s goal is to build the world’s largest database of 3D products. Hear what new possibilities that creates for both buyers and sellers.
PwC: How do you see VR changing the product experience?
Sonia Schechter: We believe that in the next three to five years, any product that’s currently photographed in 2D will be replaced by 3D content that can be repurposed across multiple channels. So instead of having photography that you use on one website or scheduling a photo shoot for 2D photography, it will all be done virtually with 3D models.
Using 3D content can provide a huge cost savings, and it also creates a unified asset management system for product content. Instead of having separate photographs for different uses, you can repurpose 3D models and customize them as needed. Imagine if you have access to 3D models that can be optimized for any platform, then you can repurpose them into any kind of experience that you want.
Although the initial investment in 3D models is greater than investing in a single photo shoot, for instance, an investment in 3D models is an annuity. They can be reused and repurposed and tweaked endlessly over time with minimal touch if they are housed properly. They can also be updated, and surfaces, colors, and textures can be changed quickly and easily, so you can respond to trends or to data about what’s working in a merchandising environment.
We call our product VisualCommerce.
PwC: What new possibilities does such a database create?
Sonia Schechter: Some things are easy to sell online. It’s easy to sell pillows or baby clothes online. What’s hard to sell online are things like custom kitchen cabinets—things that have a lot of options or things that require custom configuration or measurement. Anything that requires a lot of input from the customer is hard to sell online.
Lowe’s Innovation Labs, the innovation arm of Lowe’s Companies Inc., is one of our customers. Consumers can now go into one of 19 Lowe’s Home Improvement stores and lay out their kitchen on a tablet, and then experience it in 3D VR in the Lowe’s Holoroom. They can see whether the layout makes sense, whether they like the paint color or the cabinets. They can visualize everything. That’s never been a possibility before. People think shopping is easy, but anything that requires that level of decision making or putting a bunch of pieces together into a scene is really challenging.
Most customers shopping for these types of products have a hard time visualizing how all of the pieces will fit together in their actual kitchens or bathrooms. The Holoroom helps them see the finished project and builds the confidence necessary to move forward with purchasing.
PwC: How does the Lowe’s Holoroom work?
Sonia Schechter: The Lowe’s Holoroom is an app that has three components. The content management system holds thousands of unique 3D product SKUs, with the full range of surfaces, textures, and colors that a customer would expect. It includes many products from Lowe’s kitchen and bath departments.
When Lowe’s customers visit the Holoroom, they start the experience by using a design app on a tablet to draw their room and floor plan and to place walls and windows and doors in 2D. They then select and place the products they want to use in their project.
Lastly there’s a VR experience where they put on the headset and walk through the space they’ve created in 3D. They can feel the space and see if the various structural features are to their needs and taste. They can also try out different options. They might say, “Let me see what cherry cabinets look like versus white cabinets.” Right now, Holoroom concierges help to make any adjustments to the design, but in the future there will be interfaces for the users themselves to make such changes. Once they’ve finalized it, they can export the design as a YouTube 360 video for VR viewing at home with a regular PC or a Google Cardboard.
PwC: How do you train and educate concierges? Are you relying on yourselves or are you partnering with people?
Sonia Schechter: That is our responsibility. We have a project manager, or a “success manager,” who is assigned to train the concierges, store managers, and any other staff who would be involved in the Holoroom. We do road shows, we teach at individual stores, we talk to all of the store managers. We work with every single person in the store who deals with the technology. Remember that just because a retailer puts something cool in their store, it doesn’t mean that it gets used. People can definitely be attracted to tech, but many can also be intimidated by it.
A rollout like this is a journey. If you’re looking for quick ROI from augmented reality or virtual reality concepts, you are going to be disappointed. The other edge of that sword for retailers and manufacturers is that if they wait to get started, they’ll be behind when a traditional ROI recipe does kick in. Emerging technologies are tricky that way.
PwC: Once the product catalog is built, can it be repurposed for other retailers?
Sonia Schechter: Indeed, repurposing is possible. For instance, appliances are a big category for Lowe’s, and many other retailers also have a big appliances category. So if all of the 3D models for appliances already exist, we can repurpose those models to any retail or non-retail experience.
Efficiencies are possible in the supply chain as well. On the one hand, the retailer wants an upscale experience that can draw people in. On the other hand, the manufacturer wants the lowest cost of asset distribution that they can get, and the highest volume of visibility in the retail store, right? So, VR and AR create really interesting dynamics between the two. Shelf space is finite. Within the app, a new level of merchandising becomes available to the retailer and the manufacturer of products.
What becomes available is visual merchandising square footage—endless square footage. A product doesn’t need to be at eye level on a shelf; a manufacturer’s refrigerator doesn’t need to be the first one people see when they walk into the aisle. Visual merchandising with VisualCommerce creates an additional layer of space to enable retailers and manufacturers to get their product front and center with shoppers in different kinds of environments and experiences depending on where the buyers are in the process—and to that end, to influence buying decisions within 3D space.
PwC: What other benefits does VisualCommerce provide to the retailer?
Sonia Schechter: VisualCommerce fills in some of the holes that currently exist in shopper marketing data. A lot is known about what consumers buy and what their shopping process is. But you don’t know, for instance, all the different products that consumers looked at in a retail store before they bought something. Online, you may or may not have this information, because they might have looked at a bunch of different sites and not just yours. But if you’re merchandising within an AR or VR system, you can see exactly what they traded out, what they tested, what they tried. You can also track specific user sessions much more accurately than with a cookie-based system. All behavior in a 3D environment is attributable, and sales can be directly attributed back to the 3D experience.
PwC: How can this technology address other enterprise functions outside of consumers shopping for new cabinets and refrigerators?
Sonia Schechter: I think VR and AR will start to play a role in things like large-scale equipment sales and marketing as well as training. We work with a lot of healthcare diagnostics companies and pharmaceutical companies that have difficulty transporting their products and educating people on how their products work. Often the products are very large in scale and need custom installations. They’re also very expensive.
The amazing thing about 3D that 2D just can’t do is to show a custom-configured product in 360 degrees, with accompanying info spots and even video product details. With AR, you can scale a product and actually put it in an environment—put it into the workflow of a hospital lab, for example. You can show a customer what their custom product looks like in their actual environment. They can make sure the product will fit in the space and support their workflow.
PwC: You’re talking about AR in that example. Do you look at AR and VR in the same light? Technologically they are very different.
Sonia Schechter: They are discrete technologies, but not from a content perspective. AR and VR both leverage 3D content into 3D experiences that are simply delivered with optical equipment and technologies.
From a content perspective, there’s lots of crossover. With AR and VR, we’re just creating different apps that use the same content with perhaps different octagonal geometries. That is to say, 3D models may need to be delivered at different resolutions, but they will always be associated with the same data and can be repurposed endlessly.
What is going to happen is that everybody will need 3D product data because they’ll want to create a range of experiences based on their audience, purpose, and intention—for instance, where a customer is in their buying journey or for training or for sales. But whether the created experiences are AR or VR, they all use the same underlying models and product content.