It sounds odd at first: You build a swanky new showroom full of products to see and touch, but then help clinch the sale by asking customers to put on a pair of goggles that block out everything around them. Dana Swiger swears it works.
It works, he says, because what the customer sees inside the goggles is a version of their project created with software that can render the design in such a way that they feel as if they’ve entered a different reality.
As kitchen and bath manager of John H. Myers & Son’s new Elevations by Myers design center in Ellicott City, Md., Swiger believes that innovation will produce better designs, boost customer satisfaction, speed sales, and increase the project’s overall price.
“We used the virtual reality software for one of my customers recently,” Swiger says. “He immediately saw two things he didn’t like that we could change.” Virtual reality, he says, brings clarity to a project.
People don’t visualize distance well in a design, even when they view a three-dimensional version of it on a screen, says Tiffany Reeder, the cabinet project line manager at Myers’ parent company, US LBM. “This helps you get a sense of how close or how far apart things are,” she says.
Virtual reality has gotten a lot of press this year, primarily because of Oculus Rift, a $600 headset that went on sale this spring and that looks likely to appeal first to the computer-game set. But firms like Samsung, Google, and the design software firm 2020 all have entered the space as well, and at far lower price points. Some dealers are paying attention to these trends, particularly those LBM operations that have built design centers in hopes of winning high-end customers.
At their core, 2016’s virtual reality devices differ little from the stereopticons that our Victorian ancestors enjoyed or the Viewmaster toys that baby boomers got as kids. Except for Oculus Rift, which plugs directly into a computer, the systems involve loading software into a smartphone and then putting the phone into a set of goggles.
Either way, the goal is the same: Present a pair of two-dimensional images in such a way that the eye is tricked into thinking it’s viewing a single 3D picture. The difference is that the images in stereopticons and Viewmasters don’t change as you tilt your head or take a step. Virtual reality images do.
The team at Elevations by Myers didn’t have to make major investments to get into VR. The goggles it bought can be had for less than $100, and 2020’s version 11.4, which came out in February, was free to customers up to date with its software.
John Morgan, head of Morgan Pinnacle of Glyndon, Md., and a 2020 consultant in the mid-Atlantic, thinks virtual reality isn’t as big a change for designers as was going from paper to computer-aided design (CAD) systems. But given how fast it’s growing, he believes VR soon will be expected by customers. “I’m looking at it as helping you make more money in the end,” he says, largely because it helps reduce the time needed per customer and makes it easier to upsell by swapping out products on the fly.
Scott Harris, vice president of sales and marketing for Chief Architect, agrees with much of what Morgan says. But while 2020 has added a VR function to its software, Chief Architect is going another route. By the end of June, this CAD firm plans to launch new software that it says provides a full 3D model on a screen. Harris says one of the tool’s advantages is that the designer can export the model to the customer and let them spend time virtually walking around in the design.
Chief Architect chose this route because it believes virtual reality’s usefulness still is hampered by some key problems. “First, not many people own headsets,” Harris says. “You can’t interact well, they make you nauseous, and the visualization isn’t very great. ... So at this time, we feel that being able to immerse yourself without the headset is the best approach.”
What’s next? Harris would love to see VR add a tactile component, so that you could rest your hand on a countertop and feel it. For dealers, the next big step probably will involve product manufacturers. Not enough make their designs available for the software companies to include them in catalogs, the software firms say. Of course, with hundreds of thousands of SKUs, this is no easy task. But over time, it could be done at a moment’s notice.