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Pokémon GO has changed the game for commercial AR/VR. Three European companies tell how they’re taking advantage

Thanks to the global frenzy around Pokémon GO, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technology have become very hot property.

“The impact is profound. This is week one of the next 10 years,” claims Ian Hetherington, CEO and founder of 3D mapping company eeGeo in Dundee, Scotland. “We thought the leap from 2D to 3D graphics was big, but this is something else: this is about new ways of interacting with the world, and now that they’re here they’re not going to go away.”

As the man who brought Sony’s PlayStation to Europe, and a driving force behind games such as Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, Hetherington should know.

See also: Pokemon Go brings monster opportunities for business

Although Pokémon GO is a game whose only real value (other than pure enjoyment) is getting kids off the couch, it shows the world what’s possible. “It has woken up the world to AR, and by extension VR,” Hetherington says. “If you strip away the Pokémon brand, this is a viral use case of AR for visualizing data in the world – it just happens to be wrapped up in a game structure.”

eeGeo: Helping companies see their own worlds differently

eeGeo provides sophisticated, visually rich 3D maps that enable new voyages of discovery - across almost unlimited applications. This could be via smartphones (as with Pokémon GO), or via wearable devices such as VR headsets. The maps go much deeper than technologies such as Google Street View featured in Google Earth. They are geospatially accurate, and can reliably map the insides of buildings as well as external views.

“We built our world computationally,” Hetherington explains. “We know the footprint, shape, number of floors – i.e. the constituent components of a building – which means we can make accurate assumptions about what’s inside.”

The next step is to let commercial customers edit environments for their own purposes. eeGeo’s newly launched Smart Workplace solution lets businesses visualize and play around with their own real estate, whether to use space and resources in better ways or provide easier navigation for visitors. The premises might be a hospital, museum, theme park, airport, university campus, sports arena, shopping mall, or a large office building.

There are potential applications for facilities and asset management, and the planning of Smart Cities – because eeGeo accurately models those cities; it doesn’t just ‘map’ them. “Our models are highly interactive too: you can bring them alive with metadata,” Hetherington explains.

Japanese mobile giant NTT DoCoMo has used eeGeo’s platform to map the whole of Japan, from its rice fields to its bullet trains, to provide a richer experience to its customers – through more detailed spatial information, from accurate representation of the nation’s temples to cherry blossoms on the trees in spring for example.

See also: Coming to a headset near you: The virtual reality revolution

Hetherington believes visual discovery will soon replace text-based searches when consumers seek information about what’s around them. “The idea of browsing things in the world, whether that’s the nearest coffee shop or a Pokémon meet-up, is a powerful new use case for mobile phones,” he says. “Once you can find things on it, the map becomes a commerce portal.”

This is where augmented reality comes in – the chance to project digital representations onto existing environments, to enable real-world discovery: finding buildings or resources in physical context, exactly as players are currently finding Pokémon characters.

GoInStore: Bringing retail showrooms alive in people’s homes

For retailers, AR and VR technology holds great potential – a chance to bridge the divide between digital and physical stores.

One technology company using this is London-based startup GoInStore, creator of a pioneering ‘first person’ shopping experience for online customers.

Co-founder André Hordagoda notes that there is typically a 10-fold difference between the conversion of browser to buyer in a physical store and its online equivalent. Online, just 2-3 percent of people entering a site will go on to buy something. He attributes this to a disconnect between the knowledgeable salespeople in store, and the kind of advice that has traditionally been available to online shoppers (at best a Live Chat or video equivalent, manned by call centers).

GoInStore brings digital stores alive by connecting remote shoppers to real in-store experts, using AR - an approach it claims can turn a 2 percent online conversion rate into 20 percent, because of the richer experience and personalized advice.

Practically it’s not a service that retailers can offer to anyone, so GoInStore combines AR with sophisticated algorithms which help determine which online shoppers are most likely to convert if they can enter the physical store virtually and ‘meet up with’ a salesperson on the shop floor in the moment. This may be someone deemed to have high worth as a customer, or someone who has returned to the online store more than twice. Retailers can define the parameters; the more deeply they integrate GoInStore with their back-office systems, the greater the scope to maximize its impact.

The chosen salesperson (which the GoInStore platform can help pick, based on what the customer is looking for) appears on screen on the user’s device, and a two-way audio interaction opens up. Via a mobile phone, or smart glasses (GoInStore favors the Epson brand) worn by sales staff, the customer can browse more of what they want to see, and ask all the questions they want.

“It’s ideal for what we call ‘considered purchases’,” Hordagoda explains. These could be products with potential emotional attachment (jewelry), high-value items, complex products (such as electronics), or where customer service is important.

GoInStore’s early adopters include a consumer electronics retailer, a jewelry retailer, a large furniture retailer, two German car manufacturers, and a musical instrument retailer (using a headset offers a clear benefit here, freeing up the salesperson to demonstrate a particular guitar or keyboard).

Amari Supercars, a luxury car dealer in the UK, is one of GoInStore’s earliest users. One of its senior salespeople sold a BMW i8 worth more than $130,000 to a customer located more than 200 miles away on his first remote link-up, thanks to the ability to give a live, ‘first-person’ tour of the cars in its showroom.

“The difference is that retailers are virtually transporting customers so that they’re there with you in the showroom,” Hordagoda notes.

True AR – adding digital representations into the virtual connections – is on the cards within the next 6-12 months, he adds. “This is about capturing images digitally and putting these out across the network in real time,” he explains. “As a salesperson, I could virtually walk the customer past a range of items while visual recognition brings up the price and other value-added information when something catches their eye.”

SlotsMillion: The lure of Las Vegas in all its dimensions

For Spanish gaming company Alea, based in Barcelona, the opportunity to place digital assets in its online casinos offers a chance to take consumers deeper into its world of escapism.

Alea launched a virtual reality casino – SlotsMillion – in October 2015, recreating the ambiance of a real-life Las Vegas venue, experienced through the Oculus Rift gaming headset. It built the environment in partnership with Lucky VR, a company that creates VR experiences and specializes in casino gaming content.

Players can explore the casino floor, look out of the windows over a cityscape, and play a range of games already offered on the standard SlotsMillion site.

A new AR-enhanced version of the virtual gaming environment is due for release in March 2017, designed to tempt users to try their luck at tables and slot machines they might have bypassed previously. “It will be an enriched experience – more lights, a path on the floor leading you between games, and a lot of added information,” explains Alea’s co-founder, Alexandre Tomic.

With echoes of Pokémon GO, the new AR-enhanced SlotsMillion will provide ‘treasure hunts’ at regular intervals – missions that give customers 10 minutes to locate and play a particular slot machine with the chance of a big prize.

The fact that SlotsMillion is embracing the latest technology is attracting new customers in droves. “We’re no. 1, the new kid on the block,” Tomic says. “There has been a lot of interest – business has grown five-fold since January.”

Interestingly, this is despite the fact that most players are currently participating without headsets and therefore not fully immersing themselves in the virtual world. This isn’t because of any lack of appeal, but just that headset technology still has a way to go before consumers will accept it fully. “Fifty percent of people don’t like the current goggles – what they do to their hair, their faces, and the fact that they’re so heavy. I think we’re 5-7 years away from mass adoption,” Tomic comments.

But when the right display does come along, it will be bigger than mobile phone technology, he claims. “We’re still only at the beginning,” he says. “We shouldn’t rush – this is a complicated new medium, so we need to go slowly. But it’s fantastically exciting.”

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About Sue Tabbitt

Sue Tabbitt is a technology journalist who covers IT and telecommunications.