Lowe's is Augmenting Retail Reality with VR & Robot Assistants

With the likes of Apple and Amazon perhaps most readily associated with being at the cutting-edge of innovating the customer journey, it may for some come as a surprise to learn that for a true high-tech shopping experience, it’s not towards a tech giant that we must venture, but instead down to our local Lowe’s home improvement store.

Robotic Shopping Assistants

Lowe’s Innovation Labs first unveiled the OSHbot – a 5-foot-tall robot shopping assistant – back in 2014 at the midtown San Jose Orchard Supply hardware store. OSHbot was there to greet customers, guide them around the store, source product information and aid employees with inventory management.

Since then, the OSHbot pilot scheme has closed, with the program rolling into Lowe’s and the LoweBot.

(Image source: lowesinnovationlabs.com)

LoweBots are essentially new and improved versions of the original. Using a 3D scanner, the bots detect people as they come into stores. Customers can then ask the LoweBot (which understands and speaks 7 languages) what they’re looking for, and, using smart laser sensors, the bot will guide them through the labyrinthine aisles directly to the items. Along the way, the LoweBot even displays location-based special offers and smart recommendations on its rear-facing display panel.

While this all sounds wonderfully exciting and futuristic, Kyle Nel, executive director at Lowe’s Innovation Labs, explains that the main role of the LoweBot is in fact to find solutions for Lowe’s customers’ most basic problems.

"The LoweBot solves and serves our common cold problems," says Nel. "When I walk into a store and I want to know where something is I want to know right then — I don't want to have to download an app — a robot can really help with that."

As LoweBots traverse the shop floors, they quietly scan the shelves and send up-to-date inventory information to store associates. The ultimate goal, indeed, is not to replace the human workforce, but rather to take care of some of the more mundane tasks in order to free up time for associates to deliver a more personalized service to in-store customers. When asked if the LoweBot could one day eliminate jobs, Nel affirmed, "Most definitely not — my phone doesn't make me obsolete."

LoweBot began rolling out (quite literally) in September, and over the following months will be increasingly present in 11 Lowe’s stores across the San Jose area.

From HoloRoom to HoloLens

Lowe’s high-tech flare doesn’t end with robotic in-store assistants – the home improvement chain has been exploring the potential of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in-store experiences as well.

2014 brought the introduction of Lowe’s HoloRoom to two Toronto stores, with 19 U.S. stores following suit from November 2015. The HoloRoom allows in-store customers to design their dream kitchen or bathroom with the help of an associate’s tablet, and then slip on a VR headset to view the results and make real-time alterations to the design in virtual reality. Take a look at the video below to see it in action.

In March 2016, Microsoft HoloLens announced an official partnership with Lowe’s to once again redefine and reinvent how DIYers go about home renovation.

Home improvement, of course, is all about realizing a vision. However, conceptualizing exactly what a complete remodeling of your kitchen will look like when finished is incredibly difficult when you’ve only got a few paint-pot samples and a couple of tiles to work with. The HoloRoom went above and beyond in creating a solution for that issue, and now so too does the Lowe’s/HoloLens partnership.

“Lowe’s is using HoloLens”, explains the Microsoft Windows Blog, “to demonstrate a variety of design options for kitchen cabinetry, countertops, appliances and features like backsplashes, in a visually-rich and interactive way. Lowe’s customers will be able to experience a holographic representation of a completely new kitchen, adjust finishes and options instantly, and share their designs easily online.”

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The Virtual/Augmented Reality Future for the Showroom

The HoloLens delivers a totally immersive experience for Lowe’s customers. It is truly innovative, and indeed as much fun as it is practical. Lowe’s customers can now enter a bare frame of a showroom kitchen and use the HoloLens to get a true feel for how their new kitchen will look when complete – and that plays a huge part in helping the customer along the journey to a purchase.

“AR/VR are perfectly suited for interior design, landscape and architectural experiences,” said Adrian Weidmann, principal at StoreStream Metrics LLC. “Most people can’t visualize a particular design or color in their particular space. This technology will allow shoppers to see what a particular remodel will actually look like, helping the shopper make that purchase decision.”

Just how AR and VR might be incorporated into larger swathes of retail remains to be seen – though the potential is huge. Lowe’s has shown what’s possible for interior design, the future surely holds even greater innovations elsewhere. The last word goes to Max Goldberg of Max Goldberg and Associates.

“VR is in its infancy. As it grows more sophisticated, and as consumers come to understand and accept it, it will become a force in retail. Just what force it will become is still a work in progress.”

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About John Waldron: John Waldron is a technology and business writer for markITwrite digital content agency, based in Cornwall, UK. He writes regularly across all aspects of marketing and tech, including SEO, social media, FinTech, IoT, apps and software development.

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