The virtual world has become more vital than ever as we spend our weeks working through video chats and trying to connect to loved ones through our screens, said Gabo Arora, a world-renowned and award-winning immersive artist, professor, and former UN diplomat.
He talked about the future of virtual reality and its value as a platform for empathetic storytelling in a session with WIRED for South by Southwest. Arora emerged on the VR scene with a filmmaking background and is the Founding Director of the new Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies (ISET) program at Johns Hopkins University. He believes storytelling as a medium is one still being molded and encourages creators to continue to experiment when storytelling.
Due to the isolation people around the world are facing due to COVID-19 quarantine, real life interactions are under threat and, instead of being replaced by the virtual connections, human connections are proving to be invaluable. Arora argues that social connections through VR may have the ability to bring people closer together. VR has the ability “to expand your consciousness and allow people to experience human stories”. According to him, it will never replace but it could enhance our connections with the world and the people around you. On the effectiveness of conveying empathy, Arora believes VR is most powerful when you come out of it with a new perspective. “I’ve always been influenced by books – they’re the original empathy machines and when you read them…, you care about issues differently, you engage with the world,” says Arora.
To illustrate the power of VR, Arora highlights the work of Iranizan artist Ali Eslami, who created a virtual experience called Death Tolls. Eslami took the number of deaths during the years of conflict in Syria and represented them with body bags. The viewer would fly through imaginary areas within the VR experience seeing what 80,000 deaths really look like. In his discussion around how VR can merge with live experiences, Arora references the Royal Swedish Ballet performance of Sharol Eyal’s dance piece – Half Life, that was released in VR, produced at the Royal Swedish Opera.
As for the future of VR and storytelling, Arora encourages creators to continue to invest and develop content for the platform. “There is a hunger among many young people to become completely digitally native,” he says, and “they will continue to want control and to make stuff that can shape their own experience on the internet.”
Boohoo to surpass forecasts after 44% jump in quarterly revenues (Retail Gazette)
The idea of beauty is always shifting. Today, its more inclusive than ever (National Geographic)
How the gaming industry is changing across the world (Quartz)
Redefining plus size – dressing the ‘average’ woman in Europe (Fashion United)
Why this community of hypebeasts only buy fakes (Dazed)
Comme des Garçons accused of racism in AW20 menswear show (Fashion United)
A-COLD-WALL* isn’t making streetwear anymore (i-D)
How are you thinking about innovation? The Current Global is a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion, luxury and retail. Our mission is to solve challenges and facilitate change. We are thinkers and builders delivering innovative solutions and experiences. Get in touch to learn more.
Thanks to Ruth O’Connor for permission to publish this piece, originally published in The Sunday Business Post, October 2019.
‘Pay attention. You’ll need to,” Liz Bacelar declares as she takes to the stage. “What I present to you here will not be the same as what I present to people next week. That’s how quickly this stuff moves.”
Inventor of the phrase “fashion tech”, Bacelar is an entrepreneur, journalist and a co-founder of Current Global, an innovation firm based in New York, London and Tokyo, which seeks to redefine how fashion and retail intersect with technology.
Established in 2013 with her co-founder Rachel Arthur, Current Global forges relationships between fashion retailers, the luxury sector, tech giants and start-ups. Put simply, Bacelar has put the tech intelligence into retail. She’s speaking today at Maven46’s ‘Be’ Summit 2019 at Dublin’s Richmond Education and Event Centre, and is offering a whirlwind trip through consumer beauty and fashion, augmented reality and the immersive reality of multiple platforms.
Prior to launching Current Global, Bacelar established Decoded Fashion – the world’s largest innovator community for consumer retail. The company launched in ten countries before she exited. “I wanted to be in the connection business, not the conference business,” she says.
She is also co-founder of Flow Journeys, which sees a handpicked group of thought leaders visit locations as diverse as Iceland and Cuba to build relationships and foster collaboration. It’s networking on another level.
She uses terms like “data-driven customer journeys”, “augmented worlds” and “a culture of purpose” – which sound like future jargon, but we’re already there. Think you’ve never used augmented reality? What about apps such as the Dulux Visualiser which allows you to try paint colours on your wall? Amazon App’s View in your Room function? Or the recent launch of Spark AR on Instagram allowing users to “try on” cosmetics or sunglasses from Nars Cosmetics and Ray-Ban?
Bacelar is frequently asked whether bricks-and-mortar stores are dead. She doesn’t believe so; she says that physical retail spaces remain important, but that innovative brands are leveraging those spaces differently and the customer has become more demanding.
“It’s about having a mixed-reality layer overlaid [on the mobile experience], so that when you go into a store today you know that there will be a mirror in which you can see the make-up on your face. In certain markets, this is becoming a consumer expectation. The customer does not want to have to try on the product physically – they want to try on the product virtually.”
Later when we talk, Bacelar says that we are living in an era of contradictory behaviours, a battle between the digital and the analogue. The desire for immediacy and convenience has become a way of life. “You can live in a rural setting and still want to receive things faster,” she says. “We all perceive that we have less time, yet we also have more things to do, so we need vendors to give us efficiency and speed. A lot of what’s driving implementation of these things is a chase for speed and free time.”
The more free time we have, however, the more we spend it in a digital vortex which sucks away our human experiences. “It’s a pendulum that keeps swinging from one side to the other,” Bacelar says. “Sometimes you do want to talk to somebody when you go to a store. So technology now is swinging towards personal connections.”
Think of when you first got a personalized email from a brand. It seemed cool and even intimate at the start, but not after the 300th time. “But what if the email is from Tanya, who you met at the store, and who logged you in to the loyalty system for the brand? It becomes harder to ignore that email when you know it was sent by a real person. Stores are rolling that out now, with the first touchpoint being a real person.”
Data-driven customer journeys can become skewed when those same customers supply incorrect information. Think of the child who uses a fake date of birth to set up a Gmail account in order set up an Instagram account because they’re under the age limit, or when you put in false details online for privacy reasons.
“The major platforms do have bad data,” says Bacelar. “A lot of brands over-rely on data from the social media giants and they don’t have their own way to create a deeper understanding of who their consumer is. There are a lot of start-ups that want brands to think outside of those major platforms by harnessing the data themselves to reach a place of accuracy.”
Since we spoke in Dublin, I’ve been anticipating the new Ken Loach and Paul Laverty film Sorry We Missed You, due for release in November. It’s a stark look at the zero-hour-contract gig economy and the appalling conditions in which the people who deliver our online shopping work because we demand immediacy through e-commerce. It raises the question of where the humanity lies in all of this.
Bacelar believes that the next big retail trend is the “trend of purpose”. Thanks to the “Greta effect” she believes that young people are becoming less interested in shopping from brands that lack purpose. “Kids are bouncing from digital to analogue at a very interesting pace and the way they are aggregating communities is very interesting. The sustainability and climate change effort does not belong to any specific social platform,” she says. “It is a globalization of mobilization – the ability to mobilize communities and groups from anywhere without being in one specific place.”
Bacelar says that we are living an “offline moment” through global climate change protests and that we are also living in an “exponential curve” – a period of change on a large scale at an accelerated pace. “The level of change we’ve seen in the past six months has been greater than in the past ten years when it comes to the subjects of sustainability, technology and data awareness. Change is happening very fast.”
If people in general are resistant to change, this is also the case in the corporate environment where she says many executives believe that innovation is gimmicky rather than “doing something in a new way to get different results”.
Bacelar adds that we, as consumers, have the power to shape the conversation. “I know of companies today who are only doing sustainability because you must show that you care,” she says.
“Companies like the Eileen Fisher womenswear brand have been doing this for many years and no one listened. It once looked stupid to take old clothes and remanufacture them. Now it sounds invigorating and inspiring to a consumer.
“If I were a luxury executive, I would be terrified of the ten-year-old kids today. Their futures depend on these executives and they are not aligned. These kids walking the streets with Greta Thunberg care about localization, activism, inclusivity, empowerment – everything that luxury hasn’t been.
“Luxury is trying to catch up. In eight years, these kids will be their consumers. They have eight years to change their ways.”
Ruth O’Connor is a journalist writing for Ireland’s top publications on fashion, design, craft, trends and business for the past 13 years. She graduated from University College Dublin in 1998 with a first class honours degree in English. She then studied pattern cutting and fashion design later going on to obtain a first class honours degree in journalism from Dublin City University in 2006 where her final thesis was an exploration of fashion in Ireland. @ruthoconnorsays
A new feature of TheCurrent Innovators podcast is a monthly discussion between our hosts, Liz Bacelar and Rachel Arthur.
The two of them – also partners of TheCurrent’s innovation consultancy – come across a lot of different technologies, tons of startup entrepreneurs and many big ideas through their day jobs. Doing so means they generate many big opinions of their own – but, unsurprisingly, they don’t always agree. So, they’ve now put what normally stays behind closed doors in the office, on record for podcast listeners.
In this first episode, the two explore what virtual reality (VR) really means for the retail industry. That comes off the back of recent news that saw Walmart filing for two patents that suggest it will launch a virtual reality-based shopping experience in the future.
The world’s largest retailer detailed the idea of a virtual showroom and a fulfilment system that will enable shoppers to both explore and purchase products using the technology. The news follows Walmart’s acquisition of Spatialand, a software startup focused on creating VR experiences, which now sits within the retailer’s Store No. 8 in-house tech incubator.
What’s more, Alibaba and Amazon are also playing in this space. The latter has already launched an example of VR shopping with Macy’s for Singles Day, while Amazon recently opened 10 virtual reality kiosks in India to promote its Prime Day shopping event.
Yet, there’s an argument that much of VR, when we’re talking about application beyond gaming and entertainment, really is just gimmick. At a time when there’s little space left for technology for technology’s sake, the question is, are these retailers actually one step ahead of the game, or still just playing with something for the sake of it?
Liz has some strong views on the lack of headset penetration and what that really means for consumer uptake in the longterm, while Rachel argues there’s still space for PR opportunities with such a technology all the same. What it comes down to is relevancy in terms of both business objectives and the target consumer.
Between them they also dive into some further case studies, explore where VR really could impact retail down the line, and jump into the virtues of other technologies in the same space as alternatives.
Catch up withall of our episodes of TheCurrent Innovators here. The series is a weekly conversation with visionaries, executives and entrepreneurs. It’s backed byTheCurrent, a consultancy transforming how consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.
Walmart has filed for two patents that suggest it will launch a virtual reality-based shopping experience.
The world’s largest retailer has detailed the idea of a virtual show room and a fulfilment system that will enable shoppers to purchase via VR, according to filings with the US Patent and Trademark Office.
The experience will see users wearing both a headset and sensor-enabled gloves to explore a three-dimensional representation of a Walmart store. From there they can “pick up” the merchandise they want to buy, then add it to a queue to have it immediately shipped from an automated distribution center.
The news follows Walmart’s acquisition of Spatialand, a software startup focused on creating VR experiences, in February 2018. It sits within Store No. 8, Walmart’s in-house tech incubator.
The jury is still out on the longterm application for VR within retail, with many sceptics suggesting mass consumers won’t wear a headset to enter a digital representation of a physical store anytime soon. But there’s also promise in the idea of having more experiential access to such a wide range of merchandise from home, above and beyond what the web currently brings, and that’s especially the case when you can touch and feel the items. It also brings potential cost savings for retail in a time of increasing store closures.
This isn’t the first patent Walmart has filed under the header of virtual reality either. Previous focus has ranged from virtual conference calls to an unattended retail storefront.
How are you thinking about innovation? We’re all about finding you the perfect partners to do so. TheCurrent is a consultancy transforming how fashion, beauty and consumer retail brands intersect with technology. We deliver innovative integrations and experiences, powered by a network of top technologies and startups. Get in touch to learn more.
Amazon has opened 10 virtual reality kiosks in India to promote its Prime Day shopping event, taking place for 36 hours over July 16 and 17.
Users stick on an Oculus Rift headset and are transported to a city filled with Prime Day products. They begin from the comfort of a hot air balloon ride, which gently places them down in an animated park. From there, they can walk through different rooms for different sections of a store – from bath and beauty, to technology and then toys.
The move is one of the more creative iterations of VR retail that we’ve seen – a more engaging experience than the typical recreation of a brick and mortar space in computer imagery.
That is particularly the case because users can handle any product in full 3D by using Oculus Touch controllers. Smartphones can be turned around, clothing can be experienced by being placed on holograms to demonstrate fit, while white goods including fridges and washing machines can be explored from every angle, including inside.
“How do you discover 200-plus products that are not in the market yet? Last year, customers told us ‘we loved the stuff when we got it but we were wary while buying it since it was not something we’d ever seen’,” Akshay Sahi, head of Amazon Prime in India, told Quartz.
“So now with VR, people can see the products in their true form factor. They can see how a microwave is going to look on a countertop and how a dress looks on a model. You can see jewellery up close and observe it in great detail.”
The initiative was pioneered by Amazon India and is in shopping malls in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata.
Balmain has unveiled its new concept store in Milan, featuring a virtual reality experience based around the dream-like inspirations behind the designs of creative director Olivier Rousteing.
The experience, named “My City of Lights” aims to take visitors into the mind of Rousteing; to follow the creative influences behind his collections. Visitors putting on one of the custom Oculus VR headsets, designed by Rousteing himself, will find themselves inside the empty rooms of a Baroque castle, a high cathedral and even the rooftops of Paris.
The store showcases the first in a series of VR experiences as part of Balmain’s Wonderlabs marketing strategy focusing on entertainment and technology. Balmain’s strategy demonstrates its desire to transform the retail experience and forge the way in using technology in fashion retail.
Speaking to Vogue, Rousteing revealed that democracy is a driving force for these kind of experiences in store. “Fashion is more inclusive than ever, and there’s no better way to include more people than through technology and digital,” he said.
Rousteing isn’t new to technology collaborations in store. The opening of Balmain’s Melrose Place site also marked the launch of a collaboration between Rousteing and Beats headphones.
The Milan store however, is the luxury brand’s first flagship in Italy and has been launched to coincide with Salone del Mobile, the international furniture and design show taking place in the city. The My City of Lights experience in it will next travel to other Balmain stores around the world.
Macy’s is introducing a series of tech capabilities to its brick and mortar store before the end of the year, as the retailer continues to fight to win back space in the US retail race.
Speaking on the first day of retail conference Shoptalk in Las Vegas, CEO Jeff Gennette, introduced a new feature that allows customers to use the Macy’s app to scan an item to pay. To finish the purchase, customers will then merely need to head to a mobile checkout counter located near the exits, where a sales associate will remove any shopping tags and bag the merchandise.
Alongside more convenient click & collect capabilities, these features will be rolled out across every Macy’s location by the end of 2018, he explained.
“We think of the Macy’s app as a key we hand to our customers, a key that allows them to unlock an enhanced shopping experience – a world of possibilities. With this powerful tool in hand, we give them the opportunity to engage with us on their terms. And we keep adding exciting new features to it based on what they tell us,” said Gennette in a press release.
The retailer has also worked with Ohio-based virtual and augmented reality specialist Marxent, to use their 3D Cloud and VR solution to create a VR furniture shopping experience. During early tests, the concept “significantly increased” transaction size, Gennette said.
In the in-store experience, consumers can use tablets to virtually design their own room and place Macy’s furniture inside, which can then be watched in 3D via a VR headset. The feature will roll out at 60 Macy’s locations by the summer. It will also allow the retailer to introduce furniture in smaller retail storefronts as it won’t need to store its full line. In addition, an AR furniture shopping feature will be incorporated into the retailer’s app in April.
“Consumers today don’t just adopt technology, they absorb it at a tremendous pace, but they want it to be useful to their needs. Like a lot of brands, we’ve experimented with VR in a number of areas and we’re excited to have found a practical application that has proven to drive sales. In furniture, we are giving our customers a new tool that will allow them to virtually test out home furnishings, helping them make more informed decisions on these important purchases,” said Gennette.
At present, furniture retailers such as IKEA and Wayfair are deploying similar capabilities, while AR is also being heavily applied in the beauty industry, and dabbled with in fashion.
Retailers like Macy’s and Target were present at the Shoptalk conference to talk about how they are developing in-store technologies that will respond to consumer demand and help them stay head-above-water when going up against the elephant in the room: Amazon. It was no mere coincidence that on the same day, Gianna Puerini, VP of Amazon Go, and Dilip Kumar, VP of technology for Amazon Go and Amazon Books, also took to the stage, where they shared consumer insights on their store’s cashierless experience since launching in Seattle a little over a year ago.
Barneys New York has launched Mantle, a virtual reality film and experience in collaboration with New York-based Martha Graham Dance Company and Samsung as its tech and distribution partner.
The film aims to blend fashion, technology and contemporary dance as it showcases dancers wearing exclusive designer looks straight from the runway.
“Barneys New York has always been centered around fashion and its role within culture,” said Matthew Mazzucca, creative director of Barneys New York. “By partnering with another iconic New York institution, the Martha Graham Dance Company, along with Samsung, we are proud to give our customers an immersive experience in our stores and on Barneys.com that fuses high design with art, performance, and technology. All of these elements are pillars of the experiences Barneys New York is known for.”
Mantle features four principal dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company, each embodying different parts of the human psyche – power, ethereal, possessed and the cleaner – as well as former company members ranging up to 70 years of age. The cast wears designs by Prabal Gurung, The Row, Rick Owens, Loewe and Craig Green, all of which will be on display in the department store’s windows, as well as in the Mantle viewing experience inside.
The film is available to watch in virtual reality in-store with Gear VR powered by Oculus headsets through the Samsung VR app, and online on Barney’s online platform The Window. Users of Samsung’s VR content service app can also access it from home through their own headsets.
“No other medium can really envelop consumers into a brand universe and create brand affinity like virtual reality. We are thrilled that Barneys New York was inspired by our Gear VR technology and the immersive storytelling that VR can facilitate,” said Zach Overton, VP of brand experience at Samsung Electronics America. “At Samsung, we aim to create innovative partnerships, like our relationship with Barneys New York, to help brands reinvent how they connect with consumers.”
Filmed using a 360-degree camera, the short film was by Theo Stanley and choreographed by former MGDC teacher Cynthia Stanley. Additional collaborators include set designer Stefan Beckham and composer Sam Wagster.
“We’re creating a new experience,” Mazzucca told WWD. “We’ve gotten into pursuing what the idea of storytelling means. There’s a lot of great innovations happening in AR and VR. We understand what the retail experience can be. Seeing apparel in a VR space and how it’s captured will start something. Having immersive experiences is something we’re going to keep hammering at.”