Virtual reality is one of those technologies that has been hyped for years. Now--finally--it's starting to become less hype and more reality. And if you're in the business of selling physical products, this is a big deal.
Not quite sure what the technology has to do with your company? Consider the virtual reality software company Marxent Labs, which unveiled its VisualCommerce platform at the annual tech trade show CES in Las Vegas this month. Retailers are starting to use the platform to enhance the shopping experience. Founded in 2011, the Kettering, Ohio-based company has installed product visualization centers called "holorooms" in six Lowe's Home Improvement stores, and will install another 12 before the end of the first quarter.
Here's how the holoroom works: Consumers choose home improvement products on an iPad app, then put on an Oculus headset to virtually tour the room they're designing. If they want to swap out an appliance or change the color of paint, a Lowe's sales associate will make the change for them in real time.
To see the technology in action, check out this video.
While creating 3-D models of products for customers to view in virtual reality makes a lot of sense for home improvement retailers and companies selling large industrial equipment with many options, it's only a matter of time before smaller consumer products make their way into the VR world.
"Our long-term vision is that the use of 3-D models and highly interactive 3-D experiences ultimately will be a standard experience within e-commerce," says Marxent co-founder and CEO Beck Besecker. "[Eventually] you'll hold a pair of shoes in your hand virtually, manipulate it, and change out colors and styles," he says.
Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, also the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, agrees that Marxent is onto something. In October, Gilbert said on CNBC's Squawk Box that Marxent would "light the world on fire in terms of AR [augmented reality] and VR." Gilbert is also a managing partner at venture capital firm Detroit Venture Partners, which has invested in Marxent alongside Boston-based VC firm Stage 1 Ventures. Marxent has raised a total of $4 million in funding from the two firms.
Some of Marxent's other clients include mattress company Simmons, whose sales personnel use Marxent's software on an iPad to show the inner layers of mattresses. Another client, Toys R Us, created a 3-D game for children using the software. When holding a mobile device over the company's catalog, 3-D images of toys pop up that children can play with on the touch screen.
Unlike VR headset companies that have to invest significantly in research and development to build hardware, Marxent operates like an enterprise software company and can therefore keep its capital requirements relatively low. This helped the company reach profitability in 2015, its first full year of "real operations," Besecker says.
Though it's still early days for retailers using VR to help consumers shop for products, Besecker says the growth in companies reaching out to Marxent about its software is a good indicator the technology is poised to take off. "In 2012 we got 30 inbound leads, and in 2015 we had about 6,000," he says. "It went from a few companies in their innovation groups piloting solutions to major kitchen cabinet manufacturers saying 'I have to have this by the end of this quarter.'"