Re­tailer con­test a search for ideas

Wal-Mart’s goal is vir­tual re­al­ity

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - ROB­BIE NEISWANGER ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

The re­tail tech­nol­ogy in­vest­ment arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to un­cover in­no­va­tive ways to ap­ply vir­tual re­al­ity to com­merce and has part­nered with Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton’s startup Thrive Global to cre­ate a com­pe­ti­tion for de­vel­op­ers.

Store No. 8, which was cre­ated as a stand-alone en­tity by Wal-Mart ear­lier this year, said its In­nov8 com­pe­ti­tion will be the first of its kind by cen­ter­ing on vir­tual re­al­ity in com­merce.

Katie Fin­negan, prin­ci­pal with Store No. 8, said Wal-Mart’s in­no­va­tion hub is spear­head­ing the event as part of ef­forts to iden­tify, in­vent and in­vest in emerg­ing re­tail tech­nolo­gies.

“Our man­date is to look at tech­nolo­gies that will re­ally have a trans­for­ma­tional im­pact on re­tail and, in par­tic­u­lar, on con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ence three-plus years out,” Fin­negan said. “Vir­tual re­al­ity is one of those that we feel pretty strongly has the op­por­tu­nity to re­ally en­hance the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The com­pe­ti­tion is open to com­pa­nies or in­di­vid­u­als with ideas that have the “po­ten­tial to change the way

● we shop and live,” ac­cord­ing to the an­nounce­ment. The ap­pli­ca­tion process re­mains open un­til Aug. 4. Com­pa­nies will then be se­lected to par­tic­i­pate in an ex­hi­bi­tion in Los Angeles on Oct. 18.

Win­ners of the open in­vi­ta­tion will re­ceive cap­i­tal to help fund de­vel­op­ment costs. They’ll also have men­tor­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and a chance to work with Wal-Mart, Jet.com, Thrive Global and oth­ers. Ac­cen­ture, a global con­sult­ing firm, is par­tic­i­pat­ing as a strate­gic in­no­va­tion ad­viser.

Or­ga­niz­ers are hop­ing to use the com­pe­ti­tion as a way to shine the spot­light on re­tail in a vir­tual re­al­ity in­dus­try that is pro­jected to reach $7.2

bil­lion glob­ally by the end of 2017, ac­cord­ing to re­search from Green­bright In­sights. The re­search firm projects the in­dus­try will grow to $74.8 bil­lion by 2021.

Much of the cur­rent rev­enue po­ten­tial, ac­cord­ing to Fin­negan, lies in the gam­ing and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries. But she said there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­hance shop­ping in com­merce and used ex­am­ples such as pre­par­ing for a fish­ing or camp­ing trip as po­ten­tial ap­pli­ca­tions for vir­tual re­al­ity.

“There re­ally hasn’t been a rea­son or a cat­a­lyst to get a lot of th­ese ex­tremely bright minds ex­cited about com­merce,” Fin­negan said. “What we’re re­ally ex­cited about is get­ting some of those minds think­ing about com­merce be­cause we haven’t seen much of

that mind­share there.

“It’s not about tak­ing an e-com­merce ex­pe­ri­ence and just putting it in a head­set. It’s about cre­at­ing an en­tirely new ex­pe­ri­ence that’s op­ti­mized for that sit­u­a­tion and that cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tion.”

Carol Spieck­er­man, a re­tail con­sul­tant and pres­i­dent of Spieck­er­man Re­tail, said the com­pe­ti­tion should help Wal-Mart tap into tal­ent and in­no­va­tion in the vir­tual re­al­ity in­dus­try.

“Wal- Mart knows that, even with its ever-grow­ing tech­nol­ogy tal­ent pool, in­no­va­tion can’t al­ways be an in­side job,” Spieck­er­man said. “Just as Wal-Mart has held com­pe­ti­tions to en­sure that in­no­va­tive prod­ucts make their way onto Wal- Mart shelves, court­ing VR in­no­va­tors en­sures that Wal-Mart

stays ahead of the crowd.”

Fin­negan will be one of nine judges se­lect­ing com­pa­nies to par­tic­i­pate in the ex­hi­bi­tion in Los Angeles. The panel also in­cludes Huff­in­g­ton, founder and for­mer ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Huff­in­g­ton Post, Wal-Mart U.S. e-com­merce chief Marc Lore and fel­low Store No. 8 prin­ci­pal Seth Beal.

Fin­negan said get­ting Huff­in­g­ton in­volved was “no more than just a 15-minute phone call.” The com­pe­ti­tion, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from Huff­in­g­ton, will “fo­cus the in­dus­try’s bright­est minds and tal­ent to­ward the de­vel­op­ment of vir­tual ex­pe­ri­ences that change the way we live for the bet­ter.”

“The com­pa­nies that will win the hearts and minds of con­sumers are those that shape our daily lives by mak­ing

ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ences, like shop­ping, eas­ier and less stress­ful,” Huff­in­g­ton said.

The com­pe­ti­tion isn’t WalMart’s first foray into vir­tual re­al­ity.

Last month, the com­pany re­vealed it had been test­ing the use of vir­tual re­al­ity in 31 train­ing acad­e­mies with plans to roll it out to each lo­ca­tion. Wal-Mart plans to have 200 acad­e­mies by the end of the year. The tech­nol­ogy sub­merges Wal- Mart work­ers into scenes such as a hec­tic Black Fri­day event, giv­ing trainees a chance to sim­u­late sce­nar­ios to pre­pare them for the sales floor.

Those types of ap­pli­ca­tions are tak­ing hold, ac­cord­ing to Fin­negan. But the tech­nol­ogy is “just not there yet from a tech­ni­cal stand­point” in re­gard to con­sumer ex­pe­ri­ences.

Spieck­er­man agreed, say­ing vir­tual re­al­ity in­no­va­tion and adop­tion re­mains in its early stages. But she be­lieves Wal-Mart is demon­strat­ing its de­ter­mi­na­tion to be on the lead­ing edge.

“Make no mis­take, VR isn’t a nice-to-have in re­tail, it is an in­evitabil­ity,” Spieck­er­man said. “Wal-Mart has al­ready put a stake in the ground through its com­pre­hen­sive de­ploy­ment of VR-driven train­ing so­lu­tions. Now, through Store No. 8 and its out­side part­ner­ships, Wal-Mart will be poised to pick from the best and bright­est to set the stage for in­nu­mer­able VR ap­pli­ca­tions.

“This will be par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant as Wal-Mart and other re­tail­ers seek to in­ject a bit more ex­cite­ment and per­son­al­iza­tion into the brick-and­mor­tar shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.”

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