Hot Topic: Virtual reality check

Virtual reality may sound like science fiction, but real-life applications are rapidly turning it into science fact.

Virtual reality (VR) as a technology is now making significant inroads into everyday life and hardly a day goes by without the mainstream media running a story of how it’s being adopted by different industries and pushed by global brands.

Backed by huge players such as Google, Microsoft and Apple, its promotion is being led by the high-end gaming sector, with other branches of the entertainment sector also experimenting with it. Immersive VR experiences are being incorporated into theme park rides, for example, while film studios are investigating how it can best be used in blockbuster movies. Director Peter Jackson is openly talking about an augmented reality (AR) version of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance. 

All very interesting, you may say. But how is this relevant to me or my business? Well, several of the latest VR/AR developments have the potential to affect the OP industry, its target audiences and certain parts of its supply chain.

The retail link

The B2C world is perhaps the most obvious channel, in particular e-commerce. Virtual reality looks set to be the next chapter in the book of internet shopping, with VR apps able to provide a virtual tour of an entire store, thereby improving on the current online shopping experience. Instead of clicking through pages on a website, shoppers will be able to get a real-time shopping experience. One such app, developed by a company called Trillenium, has already attracted the attention of one of Europe’s biggest online retailers, ASOS. 

Interestingly, this developer has also produced a VR experience aimed at airlines. This uses images from external cameras on an aircraft which are then combined with transponder tracking services to create a VR vision of a flight in 360° video. Passengers experience the flight as though they were sitting in a plane made of glass. Back at ground level, some large car companies such as Ford, Volvo and Hyundai are giving potential customers VR headsets so they can ‘test drive’ their models without leaving the showroom. 

Also from a retail perspective, US giant Walmart is now using VR to train its employees so they can experience ‘real-world’ scenarios before being ‘let loose’ in stores. Trainees will, for example, be exposed to a holiday rush or a spillage in an aisle, and learn how to effectively respond to these events. In the future, the superstore’s customers will be able to receive more information with an AR-enabled phone by simply pointing it at any food product in store to get additional advice on nutritional values, provenance or even recipe suggestions.

In a business environment, DHL, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, is employing the technology in its supply chain. Employees use AR glasses to ensure packages go to the right place, with initial studies showing its implementation results in a 15% increase in productivity as well as a significant decrease in the number of mistakes.

Education focus

One sector where the potential benefits and practical uses of VR have often been quoted before is education. It is here where the technology is emerging as a significant tool that can help both teachers teach and students learn their curriculum subjects. At this year’s Bett education technology show in London, UK, the prominence of VR was striking, particularly among the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject areas.  

Examples of how VR could be used in education were plentiful. One was a demonstration on how teaching a chapter from a geography book on ‘river basin management’ could be transformed by VR into a five-minute virtual tour of the Hoover Dam. Taking some cues from the gaming industry, a friendly robot guided students around explaining aspects of the structure and setting quizzes that they needed to answer correctly before moving to the next level. The reaction from both teachers and students at Bett was very positive and demonstrated how VR can provide the education sector with a totally different tool for improving learning efficiency.

Another firm has launched a chemistry set, initially aimed at the US home-schooling market, but which could additionally be adopted by schools. The science is taught through a series of practical experiments that are subsequently explained within a VR-immersive experience that shows exactly what is happening in each reaction at a molecular level. The student is ‘shrunk’ down to atomic size where they see elements and compounds combine, with chemical bonds breaking and reforming as the reaction proceeds. Similar sets covering physics and biology are also planned.

Neil Sawyer, UKI Education and Channel Director at HP, is an enthusiastic supporter of this type of technology and believes it’s important that HP — and the industry at large — gets involved in it: “VR and AR are playing a growing role in education. We have seen many examples of students embracing this virtual world as a result of brilliant teaching and learning environments. Through our ‘Ripple Effect’ campaign and HP Learning Studio equipped with VR/AR capabilities, we have worked with eight schools around the country to bring these technologies to life for their pupils. There are some really inspiring stories emerging.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the health of the UK’s GDP in 20 years’ time rests on our ability to educate and prepare the post-millennial generation for the opportunities currently being created by this next wave of technology. Advances in VR/AR and associated 3D design and production will have a long-term influence on our industry and employment in the UK. The challenge is to make sure that we train and inspire teachers, who in turn will inspire their students. This is a long-term project — and one HP and our industry partners are committed to supporting.”

Further applications

There are many other areas where this technology is making significant inroads, notably in the field of medicine as well as rehabilitation where a number of interesting trials are being run: trainee surgeons are already experimenting with VR technology to practice operations, with equipment that lets them interact with virtual ‘flesh and bone’ in simulated theatre environments, while stroke and brain injury victims across Europe can now use immersive VR therapy to help regain motor and cognitive function, with virtual exercises that are made to feel like games thereby motivating patients to practice everyday activities. 

Finally, with terrorism, natural and man-made disasters a constant threat across the world, VR is being used to train first responders and emergency services in realistic immersive or mixed-reality (MR) environments where they can practice their skills in a variety of scenarios. 

In 2015, the European Commission awarded project funding of €5.5 million ($5.8 million) for the development of such a platform. It has been piloted at a Barcelona train station where police, security personnel and counter terrorism units were able to train in a real infrastructure environment using MR techniques. 

A virtual reality revolution is truly underway, there’s no question about that. The high-tech industries are already embracing it and large distributors are making use of it in their supply chains, with the retail sector likely to follow suit. From a business supplies perspective, whether the opportunity lies in getting involved in the sales potential that VR/AR offers or in using it as method to increase productivity with a real return on the considerable investment, it’s a topic that many players in our industry will be monitoring eye — albeit from afar at this moment. 

AR/VR in OP wholesaling: keeping a weather eye

The potential of virtual and augmented (VR/AR) technology — augmented in particular — in the distribution environment is clear. But how is this evident in practice very specifically in our industry? OPI canvassed opinion from senior executives at many of the most prominent OP wholesalers in Europe and North America to gauge interest in or indeed uptake of the concept.  

As an overall statement, there is certainly an awareness of the technologies that exist, but most responses also indicated a “wait and see” and “it’s still too early” attitude, with just small steps underway for now: 

  • VOW Managing Director Adrian Butler says that virtual technology is an area the UK wholesaler is exploring following the adoption of other types of technology within its distribution centre that were already driving up its service levels.
  • Essendant is not looking at VR/AR at the moment, but has implemented ‘voice-picking technology’ — a system whereby warehousing staff equipped with hands-free headsets and microphones interact with voice—recognition software to create a paper-free distribution environment and improve on speed and accuracy.
  • According to Thomas Veit, Managing Director at German wholesaler/distributor soft-carrier, AR could prove useful in the logistics industry. He cites HoloLens technology using smart glasses as potentially beneficial for warehouse staff when picking, packing and wrapping products. That said, Veit believes that its current system — which uses conventional monitors to show text and images — provides his employees with sufficient information for now, and the additional investment required to step up to AR could not be justified. Yet!

Keeping a weather eye on developments, on the elimination of teething problems and of course on cost appears to be the way to go for the time being. 

From current state of play to future gazing: VR/AR in the supply chain

Westcoast Retail works with the UK’s largest in-store and online retailers and is recognised for its innovative approach to distribution. OPI talks to Managing Director Carl Oxley about how virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) could affect the office supplies supply chain and retail experience. 

OPI: Where do you see these new technologies having the greatest impact?

Carl Oxley: AR and VR will both play a growing role across the whole supply chain and within retail over the coming years, from warehouse to the shop floor. They will allow users to benefit from entirely new options and let them develop and test scenarios that have never been available before. 

OPI: Where specifically in the supply chain will we first see it being adopted?

CO: One key area that will benefit greatly from this technology will be the warehouse. For example, staff with have the ability to use special AR glasses to facilitate the picking of products by matching them with images of what they should be collecting, saving both time and effort.

Another part of the supply chain where AR will become commonplace is in ‘volumetric scanning’ — a technique that is currently widely used as a means of checking whether products will fit onto pallets or for loading trucks in the most efficient way. Using AR to visually recreate virtual scenarios, rather than estimating capacities using data and numbers, is a far more attractive option for firms that can then help safeguard against potential problems more successfully. 

OPI: Where will we see the technology being implemented in retail?

CO: Within retail the main drivers for adoption will primarily be down to two things — convenience and choice. Take point-of-sale (POS) displays in-store, for instance. By moving from conventional displays to AR, consumer choice will be increased as shoppers will no longer be limited to seeing only the items physically present on shelves. It will also be far more convenient for retailers as they won’t have to change an entire display as soon as a product line alters or deals change. 

The technology is likely to first gain a foothold using in-store projections, but then migrate to full AR viewing using specialised equipment, with the option of personalised versions tailored to a consumer’s particular needs. 

OPI: What barriers do you see to the adoption of these cutting-edge technologies?

CO: AR and VR will undoubtedly have a pivotal place in retail and the supply chain, but it will require significant investment to take it to the next level. And the technology isn’t perfect yet. Take ‘Findbox’, for example. This is an in-store scanning box that helps customers find replacement ink cartridges or light bulbs. You drop the old item into a box where it’s scanned and it then tells you whether the same item is stocked, if an alternative is available and on which shelf in the shop you’ll find it.  More advanced versions can even guide you to that shelf.

However, there have been problems — caused by stock being moved around or blocked from view — that have stunted its success. It’s a prime example of a good technological idea that has gone wrong. The tech is there to make these things a success, but it must be implemented properly. Then it will show true return of investment and earn its rightful place in the industry. 

What does it all mean?

Virtual Reality (VR) — To experience VR, users wear something on their head — usually a set of goggles or a helmet — that creates a fully-immersive, but entirely artificial world separate from the ‘actual’ reality around them. 

Augmented Reality (AR) — AR also requires the use of a sensor-packed wearable device, such as Google Glass, but takes the ‘real world’ view and adds digital information and/or data on top of it. 

Mixed Reality (MR) — Sometimes also referred to as hybrid reality, MR is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce a visual experience where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. 

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