Wal-Mart’s Store No. 8 to launch technology competition for virtual reality innovation

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 484 views 

Wal-Mart Stores recently partnered with Thrive Global and Accenture to launch a first of its kind virtual commerce competition dubbed Innov8. The retail giant said last week the competition will culminate with an invitation-only exhibition in Los Angeles on Oct. 18. Participants will be asked to submit ideas that have the potential to change the way consumers shop, according to a news release.

The retailer said the exhibition will highlight the most innovative companies using virtual reality in commerce and allow them to interact and present their ideas to brands and influencers in the space. Wal-Mart said each exhibit will consist of a shared vision by the three presenting sponsors around their vision for the future of virtual reality, storytelling and experiences that demonstrate engagement and connection with consumers and the products they love.

Wal-Mart is looking for participants to submit the next generation of immersive technologies that can help improve the overall shopping experience.

“Virtual reality creates a presence, a mindfulness that nothing else today can. We are looking to leverage virtual reality to drastically enhance the way people shop. Our first step is to identify the most innovative companies and minds in the space to help us on this mission,” said Katie Finnegan, principal of Store No. 8, Wal-Mart’s technology incubator. “Innov8 will further define the future of commerce by inspiring and driving growth in the underlying ecosystem of technologies needed to bring shopping into the era of virtual experiences.”

Finnegan said the competition is open to developers and innovative early-stage companies from around the globe. The winners selected in the competition will receive capital to help fund the development costs and strategic advice during the incubation of the concept. The winners will also have the opportunity to work with Wal-Mart, Jet, Thrive Global and other leading retail partners.

“Right now, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift away from burnout and based on the connection between well-being and performance,” said Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global. “The companies that will win the hearts and minds of consumers are those that shape our daily lives by making every day experiences like shopping easier and less stressful. Innov8 will focus the industry’s brightest minds and talent toward the development of virtual experiences that change the way we live for the better.”

Marc Lore, CEO of Walmart U.S. e-Commerce, said recently during the retailer’s annual shareholders week that Store No. 8 would be one way the retail giant can leverage toward future innovations without taking too much time in the here and now. He and Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran agreed it’s important to always be planning for tomorrow, but if the eyes stay focused too far ahead then it’s possible to stumble on a bump in front of you.

“We are pretty happy about the way things are going,” Lore said.

He said Store No. 8 is one way the retailer will be able to streamline the way it looks at artificial intelligence and virtual reality, which he believes will continue to have retail applications. Marc Carrel-Billiard, senior managing director at Accenture Labs, said virtual reality is rapidly transforming the way companies connect and engage with their customers and employees.

“Accenture is committed to developing and investing in this powerful technology given the potential we believe it has to drive real business value. We’re excited to participate as a strategic innovation advisor to Innov8 and look forward to seeing the ideas that emerge.”

Seth Waite, chief marketing officer for Bentonville-based RevUnit, told Talk Business & Politics earlier this year that augmented reality is already creeping into retail. He said virtual reality requires special devices and changes in behavior to make it work. For that reason, Waite believes VR will take a bit longer. That said, Waite is sure some retailers are already using VR behind the scenes in their operations.

Wal-Mart is using VR in its training academies to simulate store conditions for employees without actually recreating Black Friday or a hazardous spill. Wal-Mart said VR training allows the opportunity to provide a very close-to-life experience for the employee who can plan according without having to really be in that situation. Bringing that out to the customer-facing applications, virtual reality is also being used to try and sell products in test situations with retailers such as Lowe’s and Toms Shoes.

Last year, Lowe’s introduced consumers to Holoroom, a simulated space that could be personalized with individual room sizes, equipment, colors and finishings. The consumers could give Lowe’s the dimensions of a room and fill it with products from Lowe’s inventory. In 19 stores around the country, Lowe’s offered consumers the opportunity to put on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to see how all the elements they selected looked together. That design is also viewable on YouTube 360 with a Google Cardboard view, which Lowe’s gives out free through on-site vending machines.

Lowe’s execs said using the VR Holoroom has been helpful in nudging people over the biggest hurdles when it comes to remodeling or refreshing rooms. It speeds up the buying process by five steps of more because it’s a way for consumer fully conceptualize what a swatch of fabric or paint sample might look like when fully applied, according to Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

As far back as 2015, entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie, whose Toms Shoes venture had a mission to give one pair of shoes away to those in need for every pair sold, thought it would be meaningful for his customers to go along on one of his one-for-one trips to Peru. He said the cost of filming the trip cost about $250,000 and outfitting the stores with the VR devices ran about $1,000 each but the Toms shopper gets a chance to see what it’s like to be part of an entire schoolyard of children being handed shoes. He said it puts the shopper in California there in the mix on the schoolyard in Peru and that experience could be seen as priceless.

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