Virtual reality beyond gaming: two Chicago companies test virtual retail potential

Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus Rift: gadgets with price ranging from tens to hundreds of dollars. As virtual reality hardware becomes more affordable and accessible, two Chicago companies are testing their potential in a retail market extending beyond gaming.

Virtual Reality headgear at Solstice Mobile (Xiumei Dong/MEDILL)
Virtual Reality headgear at Solstice Mobile (Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong)

“2016 will be the year of the hardware,” according to Paul Heckel, Principal Digital Strategist at Solstice Mobile, a technology consulting firm that provides digital strategies, designs and products to the clients.

“VTour came to the idea that a lot of our prospective clients don’t get to come into our office,” said Sarah Berger, Marketing Administrator at Solstice Mobile. In order help the clients get a better picture of the company’s work environment, the team created a 360-degree virtual reality video of the office using GoPro cameras, and distributed the video with custom-branded Google Cardboard.

“This is a very cheap form of technology,” said Berger. She explained the company is experimenting with Google Cardboard because a fully branded cardboard costs only about $8. The tool can be easily assembled from simple lenses, cardboard, and a fastening device to insert a smartphone, giving the user the ability to view 3D images.

Just this past month, The New York Times delivered 1.2 million Google Cardboard headsets to home-delivery subscribers when they announced a partnership with Google Cardboard to introduce a new immersive documentary film.

While smartphones can show virtual reality videos without the cardboard, Berger said an advantage of using the cardboard is that it really immerses viewers into a 3-D environment.

In addition to testing with the Google Cardboard, the company is also experimenting with high-end headsets such as the Oculus Rift.

Oculus VR, acquired by Facebook for $2 Billion last year, allows the users to be fully immersed into a 3-D environment using a helmet-and-visor system. In Solstice’s latest project, you find yourself in a bar setting, pulling virtual tap handles that causes nearby vending machines to pour actual beer.

Berger pulls the virtual beer tap handles. (Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong)

“This is a great way to say, we are not only using the latest technology, we are experimenters,” said Adam Frederico, Senior Product Consultant at Solstice Mobile.

The company is already working with a client on a virtual reality simulation of the interior of a Tesla car. They said the challenge is to find the people with sufficient knowledge of the technology.

“That requires more than someone who can operate a go-pro array,” said Heckel in an email. “It requires developers, specifically those skilled in Unity (and similar). Content is the next take-off point.”

About 10 miles away, InContext Solutions, which provides virtual reality store simulations and consumer research services, is also exploring their options with the VR headgears.

Wasilowsk demonstrating the virtual reality headgear at InContext Solutions. (Photo Credit: Xiumei Dong)

“Because we use 3-D game technology, we use the Unity engine for a lot of our virtual software. The step into VR is kind of like the next logical thing to do,” said August Wasilowski, Software Engineer at InContext Solutions.

Wasilowski said they are experimenting their ideas in three different ways:

First, which he refers as the “least immersed”, is to use Google Cardboard to showcase the client’ product or store through a 360-degree video.

Second, which he refers as “semi-immersed”, is to use Samsung Gear VR to demonstrate a virtual store, where the viewers can walk around and manipulate the environment with the touchpad on the side.

Last, he said is the “fully-immersed” that brings the users into a fully immersed retail store environment using Oculus Rift or HTC Vive headset. The user can move and manipulate products on the shelf using the controllers on their hands.

“It’s so new, so we are just kind of goofing around,” said Wasilowski. While the idea of virtual reality shopping has crossed their mind, Wasilowski said going directly to websites such as Amazon is still more convenient.

“It’s a whole new world, nobody knows everything that’s going to happen in the next five years,” said Wasilowski. “Whatever is, it’s going to happen!”