North Carolina businesses blazing the virtual reality trail | Crain's Charlotte

North Carolina businesses blazing the virtual reality trail

Mooresville-based Lowe's Home Improvement is leading the virtual reality charge through its disruptive innovation labs. | Photo by Mike Mozart via Creative Commons.

Virtual reality is here. And Tar Heel State businesses – and not just those known for innovation in the tech space – had better jump aboard the VR train or risk getting left behind at the station. 

That’s according to Christophe Lafargue, the director of business development for Lucid Dream, a Durham-based virtual reality agency whose clients range from architecture and engineering firms to retail and education applications. Lafargue, a millennial whose resume includes a stint at Apple, said the first time he tried on a virtual reality headset was a transformational experience. 

“As an industry, virtual reality just took its first steps right now, and it’s still figuring out what to do next,” Lafargue said. “But it’s moving.”

Virtual reality first gained popularity in the video game world and its legions of fans.

“That was the impetus behind why virtual reality is here,” Lafargue said. “But from a commercial perspective, anyone in the marketing industry, or really any relevant industry, can benefit. For example, there are healthcare applications that are really exciting, as well as opportunities in industrial systems, construction, architecture and education.”

Applications in education

Elizabeth Evans is the director of Duke University’s Duke Digital Initiative, a multifaceted collaboration to identify and promote the use of emerging technologies such as virtual reality and 3D printing in support of instruction. In her role, Evans considers the application of virtual reality in educational and learning environments.

“My interest in virtual reality in higher education is not teaching students how to do virtual reality, but whether we can use virtual reality to teach others subjects,” Evans explained. “And the big question about that is whether it will help students learn more, remember content longer and understand that content better.

“For example, what happens to learning if we could immerse an undergraduate student into a life based in the 1860s in the U.S.? Perhaps we offer them a chance to ‘be’ part of a family in the North with someone going to fight in the Civil War, and then place them ‘in’ a family in the South with someone going off to fight?”

Other learning scenarios abound. 

“What if a student could ‘be’ in a refugee camp today? What if we let a chemistry student in a virtual lab mix chemicals we know will explode?”

VR in the home store space

Kyle Nel, vice president of disruptive innovation at Lowe’s Home Improvement – which is headquartered just outside Charlotte in Mooresville – runs Lowes Innovation Labs. The disruptive technology hub, as the LIL team refers to it, was established in 2014 to help customers “imagine the impossible” by “creating new customer and retail solutions.”

“The Labs are applying existing technology to the retail experience to solve everyday problems today, while also exploring how it will impact customers in the future,” Nel said. “Our biggest challenges in home improvement is visualizing a completed project and communicating that vision to others. We set out to help solve this challenge and found virtual and augmented reality are a great solution. For us, it’s more about helping customers than it is about the technology.”

What can customers expect from a Lowe’s virtual reality experience?

“In 2014, Lowe’s Innovation Labs launched a home improvement design and visualization tool called Lowe’s Holoroom that leverages augmented and virtual reality technologies to provide an intuitive, immersive experience for exploring and planning projects," Nel explained.

But the technology isn’t just to trigger one’s imagination in conceptualizing a redone space, as other applications are quite useful beyond visualization, Nel said. Consider, perhaps, the property owner who would like to take on a kitchen or bathroom remodeling effort, but who has never laid down tile before.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to practice first?" Nel said. "'Holoroom: How To' will teach you to tile your shower in virtual reality, possibly saving you from stress and mistakes.”

For Nel and his team, there’s no sign of slowing down. In fact, they just launched LIL 3D, which allows the team to “create 3D assets that are so high-quality, they’re virtually indistinguishable from reality.”

From the Triangle to the Queen City, it’s clear that if virtual reality is the future, then the future is now.

“I think virtual reality will be commonplace in our conversations across industries in the next three or four years," Lafargue said. "I don’t think companies can afford not to at least think about it. I would equate it to the birth of the Internet – there were those who jumped on early and there were people who jumped on five years later, who really missed that opportunity.”

June 21, 2017 - 9:17am