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Can VR Demos Convince You to Return to the Mall?

Malls have a problem. People come to browse, if they show up at all, but when it comes time to purchase, many pull out their smartphones to buy, grab a snack in the food court, and head home to wait for the delivery.

Some empty malls are being reimagined as microamusement parks. But Japanese company Psychic VR Lab wants to bring its virtual reality tech, dubbed Styly, into the store itself in a bid to inspire on-the-spot purchases.

Psychic VR Lab has tested this in Tokyo's Isetan Shinjuku Mall at futuristic design houses chloma, BALMUNG, and HATRA. After a successful trial in September 2016, Psychic VR Lab released a US beta of Styly at SXSW; 500 US developers are now trying it out and providing feedback.

PCMag caught up with Mir Nausharwan, Chief Alliance Officer/Head of Global Department at Psychic VR Lab, at the recent Unity Technologies developer event, Unite Austin, to find out more.

"Whatever you create in Unity, with one-click you can transfer into the Styly platform," Nausharwan explained during a demo. It did look very simple to use (if you're already familiar with Unity's platform).

Nausharwan's parents are from Kashmir, but he was born in Tokyo, so he speaks fluent Japanese, along with Arabic, English, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. He joined the company after several years working in the mobile gaming industry, with roles at both DeNA Japan and DeNA South Asia, where he helped develop top-grossing games in Japan, including Tap Tap Fish, and brought them to the Western market. Now he's trying to do the same at Psychic VR Labs as it goes global.

Tokyo's Isetan Shinjuku Mall

"At Isetan, customers put on a Microsoft HoloLens, accessed the brand's VR presence, via Styly, and, once there, they could change the clothes, swap out colors, share the items via social media while 'inside' the VR showroom," Nausharwan tells me.

"Isetan found it changed the experience of shopping for their customers via the social effect. Plus it saved time, you see your avatar get changed, so you don't have to, physically. They haven't shared actual data with us yet, but we knew it was a success for them and we're using what we learned for our potential US partnerships."

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The Styly platform is free to use, and there's a showcasing cloud-storage facility for completed VR projects. But the real money will be made in adapting Styly's tools to US-based retail ventures, in the way Psychic VR Lab already did in Tokyo.

Which is why, after Austin, Nausharwan is doing something of a US tech tour to drum up business, landing this week in San Jose at Oculus Connect 4, where he's speaking about creating global communities via Styly.

"The cultural differences, and language barrier, make it hard for Japanese companies to export technology products," he points out. "So my role, as an international executive, is to make that happen. The Japanese market is a very mature market for VR with a market value of $7.4 billion dollars. In Shinjuku, near where we ran the Styly VR trial, there's a massive VR Zone so customers are very used to the idea of putting on an HMD to experience a new way of being there. I'm hoping we can bring that same level of comfort to the US."

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This trend suggests users are reaching a saturation point in terms of how much time they can devote to apps. The AV industry could reverse that. But just how mobile apps will penetrate this market and who will hold the keys in this new era of mobility is still very much in doubt. When it comes to a driverless future, multiple factors are now converging. Over the last few years, while app usage showed signs of stagnation, the push for driverless vehicles has only intensified. More cities are live-testing driverless software than ever, and investments in autonomous vehicle technology and software by tech giants like Google and Uber (measured in the billions) are starting to mature. And, after some reluctance, automakers have now embraced this idea of a driverless future. Expectations from all sides point to a “passenger economy” of mobility-as-a-service, which, by some estimates, may be worth as much as $7 trillion by 2050. For mobile app companies this suggests several interesting questions: Will smart cars, like smartphones before them, be forced to go “exclusive” with a single OS of record (Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon/AGL), or will they be able to offer multiple OS/platforms of record based on app maturity or functionality? Or, will automakers simply step in to create their own closed loop operating systems, fragmenting the market completely? Automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.” Complicating the picture even further is the potential significance of an OS’s ability to support multiple Digital Assistants of Record (independent of the OS), as we see with Google Assistant now working on iOS. Obviously, voice NLP/U will be even more critical for smart car applications as compared to smart speakers and phones. Even in those established arenas the battle for OS dominance is only just beginning. Opening a new front in driverless vehicles could have a fascinating impact. Either way, the implications for mobile app companies are significant. Looking at the driverless landscape today there are several indications as to which direction the OSes in AVs will ultimately go. For example, after some initial inroads developing their own fleet of autonomous vehicles, Google has now focused almost all its efforts on autonomous driving software while striking numerous partnership deals with traditional automakers. Some automakers, however, are moving forward developing their own OSes. Volkswagen, for instance, announced that vw.OS will be introduced in VW brand electric cars from 2020 onward, with an eye toward autonomous driving functions. (VW also plans to launch a fleet of autonomous cars in 2019 to rival Uber.) Tesla, a leader in AV, is building its own unified hardware-software stack. Companies like Udacity, however, are building an “open-source” self-driving car tech. Mobileye and Baidu have a partnership in place to provide software for automobile manufacturers. Clearly, most smartphone apps would benefit from native integration, but there are several categories beyond music, voice and navigation that require significant hardware investment to natively integrate. Will automakers be interested in the Tesla model? If not, how will smart cars and apps (independent of OS/voice assistant) partner up? Given the hardware requirements necessary to enable native app functionality and optimal user experience, how will this force smart car manufacturers to work more seamlessly with platforms like AGL to ensure competitive advantage and differentiation? And, will this commoditize the OS dominance we see in smartphones today? It’s clearly still early days and — at least in the near term — multiple OS solutions will likely be employed until preferred solutions rise to the top. Regardless, automakers and tech companies clearly recognize the importance of “connected mobility.” Connectivity and vehicular mobility will very likely replace traditional auto values like speed, comfort and power. The combination of Wi-Fi hotspot and autonomous vehicles (let alone consumer/business choice of on-demand vehicles) will propel instant conversion/personalization of smart car environments to passenger preferences. And, while questions remain around the how and the who in this new era in mobile, it’s not hard to see the why. Americans already spend an average of 293 hours per year inside a car, and the average commute time has jumped around 20 percent since 1980. In a recent survey (conducted by Ipsos/GenPop) researchers found that in a driverless future people would spend roughly a third of the time communicating with friends and family or for business and online shopping. By 2030, it’s estimated the autonomous cars “will free up a mind-blowing 1.9 trillion minutes for passengers.” Another analysis suggested that even with just 10 percent adoption, driverless cars could account for $250 billion in driver productivity alone. Productivity in this sense extends well beyond personal entertainment and commerce and into the realm of business productivity. Use of integrated display (screen and heads-up) and voice will enable business multi-tasking from video conferencing, search, messaging, scheduling, travel booking, e-commerce and navigation. First-mover advantage goes to the mobile app companies that first bundle into a single compelling package information density, content access and mobility. An app company that can claim 10 to 15 percent of this market will be a significant player. For now, investors are throwing lots of money at possible winners in the autonomous automotive race, who, in turn, are beginning to define the shape of the mobile app landscape in a driverless future. In fact, what we’re seeing now looks a lot like the early days of smartphones with companies like Tesla, for example, applying an Apple -esque strategy for smart car versus smartphone. Will these OS/app marketplaces be dominated by a Tesla — or Google (for that matter) — and command a 30 percent revenue share from apps, or will auto manufacturers with proprietary platforms capitalize on this opportunity? Questions like these — while at the same time wondering just who the winners and losers in AV will be — mean investment and entrepreneurship in the mobile app sector is an extremely lucrative but risky gamble.

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