Kyle Nel uses science fiction stories to try and picture the retail store of the future.
He’s executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, a division of the hardware giant that’s focused on developing innovative ideas.
One of those ideas is a virtual reality experience that teaches people how to re-tile a bathroom. Called Holoroom How To, it was first launched at a store near Boston. Earlier this month, Lowes announced it would be testing the technology in Canadian stores.
Nel says the hands-on experience does a much better job of teaching the right process than watching YouTube video, which what most people do now.
“Even in the early days of this VR learning, it’s still way better than the current best method,” he says.
Holoroom users wear a headset and operate a controller that simulates the movements—and gives haptic feedback – involved in the re-tiling process.
The technology is still in the testing phase. Nel says that how and when it gets rolled-out to more stores will depend on how people use it.
“We’re doing to learn,” he says. “So that we can learn what to do and how to build these things out at scale.”
Like most large organizations, Nel says, Lowes is trying to meaningful ways to innovate. The challenge, though, is figuring out how to do that.
“I’m a behavior scientist by trade,” he says. “I spent all my academic time trying to understand how people make decisions.”
But, as a researcher responsible for coming up with new ideas, he had a challenge.
“I would spend all my time creating these killer Power Point presentations,” he says. “What would end up happening is, most of the time, people who go, ‘that was an amazing presentation!’ and then nothing would happen afterwords.”
So he started to think about how to get company executives to really around the ideas. He says he thought back to something he’d learned in graduate school about the power of narratives.
“New information is only really digested through story, when I got into the business world, it was very clear that no one was using story in a meaningful way to effect that change,” he says.
Stories, it turned out, were an extremely effective way to help visualize what new technology would look like in the retail store of the future and to think about innovation in a way that didn’t start with specific pieces of technology.
“What we do is give all of our making research and trend data to professional, published science fiction writers,” he says. “They sift through all the possibilities and the permutations of those possibilities and they come up with a plausible, probable, future where these tech and people trends might merge at a specific place in time.”
Those writers then write short stories—Nel say’s they’re real stories with characters, conflict and narrative arcs—to imagine what that future would look like.
Nel’s team then those stories and turns into comic books or VR experiences which are then shown to the company’s leadership.
“We literally read comic books and those are our strategic documents for the future,” he says.
Through this narrative-driven innovation process, his team put the first store in space, part of a partnership with a 3D printer manufacturer that allows astronauts on the International Space Station to print tools on-demand. It’s the first time commercial manufacturing has taken place off of the planet.
His team has also introduced autonomous robots in some stores in the United States. He says that this way of thinking allows the company to get ahead of trends.
Nel says he began to work on ideas for augmented and virtual reality experiences five years ago, before the Oculus Rift was on Kickstarter.
“The latest things that we just announced are manifestations of us going along that path to achieving what’s in this story,” he says. “We’re not just doing virtual reality, we’re trying to solve these problems that we see in the future.”
Lowes isn’t the only company that sees opportunities for virtual reality in a home-improvement setting.
Ottawa-based OakWood, a general contractor and home builder, is working with Microsoft to develop software for the HoloLens.
That software will allow customers to visualize what their homes will look like after renovations are done.
“They can move tile around, move cabinets around, they can just pick a different tile,” says John Liptak, the company’s president and CEO. “Everything changes right in front of their eyes.”
Right now, when people want to look at 3D visualizations, they have look at it on screen. Liptak says the new technology makes thing more real.
“It’s actually a huge leap forward in design from just the normal 3D design that we’ve been doing for years,” he says.
Liptak says technology has always been a competitive advantage for his business. His company has built software products to help make worksites more efficient and automate processes. OakWood’s site managers take tablets to job sites and coordinate projects in the cloud.
But some people see limitations with the technology. Jules Thuillier wants to solve that.
He says current VR technology doesn’t allow for much movement. People can look around, but they can’t walk around. Instead, they stay in one place physically, and use a controller to move around the virtual environment.
Thuillier is the CEO of Montreal-based VR Tracker.
His company has developed a small hardware device that attaches to a VR headset and uses optical tracking to allow wearers to move around a physical—and virtual—environment at the same time.
The technology also can detect other objects and people in the space, allowing users to ditch controllers and for multiple people to be in the same space and share a virtual or augmented reality experiences.
“We think that virtual reality can be more social and you can have experiences with other people, where you can see them and you can interact with them,” he says.
He sees a lot of uses for the technology.
“You can play a game, you can visit the museum and it’s more natural, you don’t have to use controllers,” he says.
Right now, his company is working with laser tag operators, who want to add a augmented reality component to their games.
But he’s also attracted interest from architects who want to be able to walk around a building they’re working on, and see how it will look when it’s done.
“You’re going to be able to move around in the building to see it from different angles,” Thuillier says.
He says it will be a step-up from static visualizations.
“We want to provide them with a way to interact with the environment,” Thuillier says. “You’re going to be able to grab objects in virtual reality and move them around.”
The VR Tracker itself is currently in beta, a commercial version is expected to come out this summer. While augmented reality laser tag isn’t far off, Thuillier says there’s still a lot of work to be done to develop software for architects to use the technology.
Visualization is also on Nel’s mind. He says teaching people how to re-tile bathrooms is just the beginning. He sees a lot of opportunity to use the technology to help people not just become more comfortable with DIY project but to also explain what they want to do.
“Even if you can do it, it’s likely that you can’t explain it very well to the other person in your life that’s making the decision too,” he says. “You hear people say, ‘oh, you meant that kind of yellow,’ there aren’t words to describe it.”
For Lowes, Nel says, being innovative is a way for the company to avoid disruption.
“Instead of wringing our hands and waiting for the end to come, why don’t we participate in that future?” he says. “If you look at all the things we’ve done along the way, we’ve pushed the boundaries of what the tech allows for, not because virtual reality is so great but because it’s the best way to give people what they really want, which is to visualize their space before they actually do anything to it.”