The context of the global pandemic has brutally shaped our lives in a new way. Day after day, a new routine has taken hold of our habits and has led to new consumption and purchasing behaviors. Indeed, if before COVID-19 we used the Internet as an essential tool for working and shopping. Today, the Internet is now a necessary and vital tool for any activity: teleworking, shopping, content consumption and socializing. As a result, the virus has made a major contribution to the development of digital tools and the intensification of the use of technology to prepare the future society which will, without doubt, be virtual.
The consumer in the midst of brand challenges
The outbreak of the pandemic has been a stress test for companies around the world. Small, medium, and large companies were forced to close their doors while employees were driven back home. One thing is certain, this pandemic challenged companies on their adaptability and their resilience. Long awaited, teleworking and virtual collaboration became a reality in just a few days and on a large scale.
Teams, Google Meet, Zoom, Skype and many other services have seen their use exploded during lockdown by allowing employees to keep in touch with each other. For example, some healthcare professions have been able to continue their activity by conducting teleconsultation or video consultation to diagnose patients.
But in sectors where simple videoconferencing is no longer enough, particularly in activities that are difficult to carry out remotely, virtual reality will be able to remedy this. It is on the evidence that multiple software and platforms have flourished to prepare users for the changes, such as MeetinVR, Rumii or Spatial. Immersing the user in a virtual space, they have the ability to give the impression of being physically close to each other and in a more realistic way (avatar, modelling of an environment different from home, almost "natural" gestures etc.). Both have functionalities dedicated to desktop tools and collaboration in order to organize advanced and interactive meetings in the best conditions.
However, these software programs do not have advanced features enough to meet more specific and industry-focused needs. This is where Light & Shadows comes in with INTERACT.
Based on Unity, INTERACT is a powerful platform for building interactive, immersive (VR/AR/MR) and advanced experiences directly from CAO/CAD models. With this software, it is possible to carry out model reviews, 3D observation of a product in its smallest details, employee training and many other use cases at a distance. To explore this subject further, we had previously written an article on remote collaboration with INTERACT.
A redefinition of consumption patterns
The crisis severely hit the economy by temporarily closing shops or limiting the movement of customers, thus reducing their consumption. This has forced retailers to reinvent - if they have not already done so - new points of contact with customers, especially online. E-commerce has never been explored so much as it is today. In a tactile environment, how can customers be allowed to try and view products without spreading germs? The new normality means less time spent in front of customers and less chance to present products at trade events. To compensate for this, brands have had to innovate and go digital.
WebGL & 3D configurator
E-commerce means platform and website. And some professionals may miss this. Therefore the French State has developed a system to help local authorities set up communal e-commerce platforms. In addition, the French State also offers €500 in aid to administratively closed businesses and professionals in the hotel and restaurant sector in order to develop their online presence.
While websites are a good tool for displaying products, their potential is not fully exploited. Indeed, it is possible to integrate a product configurator within the website, without installing any software, thanks to WebGL technology. Not only does this allow the product to be viewed virtually in every corner, but it also offers the possibility of customisation. We also wrote an article on this subject. As an example, the startup 2Pi Digital has created a very complete office chair configurator, which allows the user to configure the model, colours, materials but also the functions of a chair.
Augmented reality & “try-on”
Some brands go even further in the experience by offering the possibility to virtually try the product: these are the so-called "try-on" experiences. Whether from the computer camera or on a mobile phone through an augmented reality filter (Snapchat, Instagram, web browser etc.), these experiences can be exploited in depth. For example, it is possible for the customers to make a purchase without ever leaving the application (or their home) right after the try-on session.
Retail brands and especially luxury and cosmetic brands are very fond of this technology. For example, in June 2019, Gucci became the first fashion brand to integrate augmented reality into its application, allowing fans to virtually try on Ace shoes in their favourite styles. Today, Gucci continues to use this technology through AR filters on Snapchat. In another example, just before the pandemic broke out, Adidas teamed up with Vyking, a company specialising in AR technology. The sportswear brand installed a "try-on" module in its mobile application: The technology follows the users' foot movements, so that the virtual testing experience takes place in real time. Shoppers can then select their sizes and make their purchases in the application. To find out more about augmented reality filters, we also wrote an article on our blog.
Virtual reality and product demonstration
The inability to organise physical presentations of collections and showroom visits has led the industry to radically rethink the way brands conduct their sales processes. One of the solutions? Virtual reality (VR). VR used to be seen as a marketing gimmick. But today, it is not only a solution to the problems that the industry is currently facing, but also a solution for brands wishing to improve their ecological footprint (less travel, less physical production, etc.). Moreover, immersing the user in a world of brand codes will have a stronger mental impact than a simple 2D visualization.
Then, there are virtual showrooms. Whether physical or in VR, a showroom has the same objectives: a sales and display tool or platform that acts as a PLM/ERP system with a library of samples. At Light & Shadows, we developed a VR showroom for the designer Fabrice Ausset. With a realistic rendering, users were able to navigate freely in the showroom and observe the brand's creations.
The pandemic has also forced the postponement of corporate events, such as product launches and fashion shows.
For example, the Asics brand had originally planned a large-scale, in-person launch of its Olympic shoes line in Kobe, Japan. However, after the country was quarantined, this was no longer an option. While many international brands put their product launches on hold until after the pandemic, Asics decided to launch the shoes digitally. The brand then created an VR experience with a holographic showroom and 360-degree close-ups of the shoes. Asics then sent Oculus Quest headsets to journalists to watch over the weekend.
As for Balenciaga, the luxury brand presented its autumn 2021 collection in a double format: on the one hand, a VR fashion show for journalists (including an Oculus helmet delivered to a few guests); on the other hand, a video game show, accessible in VR: Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. The experience takes the user through an allegorical game set in 2031. The avatars are also dressed in clothes from Balenciaga's latest collection.
Disturbed social and professional interactions
Where the situation has separated one from the other, technology has brought them together.
In just a few weeks, Zoom went from being a simple application to a member of the close circle. This is where people organise appetizers ("zoompéro" as some call it) and students attend the course. What is less expected is that such software, often limited to reproduce real social interaction, has become the most popular application of the pandemic. In any case, the widespread use of such platforms to maintain contact has ultimately adjusted social norms and the way people interact with each other.
When it comes to virtual gatherings and large-scale interactions, video games have certainly played a big role: In March 2020, the Steam platform surpassed 20 million active users, while in May 2020, "Animal Crossing" - THE game of lockdown - reached 11 million players. In addition to the video games and island discoveries on Animal Crossing, VR concerts have also made their appearance. For instance, 30 April is a major cultural event in Helsinki, where international events are usually held. But confinement makes it impossible to celebrate it physically. The company Zoan, specialized in immersive technologies, responded to this problem by producing a concert in VR. The experiment was a success and managed to engage more than 1 million people from all over the world. It broke down barriers by welcoming even people who did not have the chance to physically get to the place.
For professionals, trade fairs and conferences are also strategic meeting places to boost business, but have been postponed, or worse, cancelled. Nevertheless, some organisers such as Laval Virtual or Virtuality opted for a virtualisation of the event for the 2020 edition: each visitor, through his or her avatar, could, in this virtual universe, meet and listen to speakers, exchange with brands and the community or isolate himself or herself in a meeting room or private space. As if the event was real in the end. By the way, the Light & Shadows team was there!
At the same time, during and after the first lockdown, it is possible to observe an increase in participation in webinars and livestreams in order to increase its visibility, to stay connected with its customers, but also to look for new ones. As this pandemic has affected companies financially, these tools represent a real competitive advantage on the market. And look at us! At Light & Shadows, we also played along and had to use these tools: we organized our first webinar on 10 December 2020.
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