Virtual reality is a great gimmick, but it is often dismissed as not having any really practical business use. UK supermarket chain J Sainsbury Plc disagrees. Sainsbury, so the story goes, is the first UK retailer to take commercial advantage of Virtual Reality. It has been working with Intelligent Systems Solutions Ltd of Salford, Greater […]
Virtual reality is a great gimmick, but it is often dismissed as not having any really practical business use. UK supermarket chain J Sainsbury Plc disagrees. Sainsbury, so the story goes, is the first UK retailer to take commercial advantage of Virtual Reality. It has been working with Intelligent Systems Solutions Ltd of Salford, Greater Manchester since January to build a virtual supermarket that will reduce store development costs and improve the results of supermarket redesigns. The virtual store is an interactive three-dimensional computer model of the chain’s Salford branch. Store designers can move around the aisles to get a customer-eye view of the layout. The designer can make on-the-spot virtual improvements to shelf, aisle and product layouts, and immediately see what the effect of these will be from the customer’s point of view. The system enables the user to reach out and pick products off the shelf and collect them at the virtual checkout.
Sainsbury’s was motivated to take on the project because it needed to be able to visualise new developments in stores and communicate them to senior management, in the hope that late design changes could be avoided. Virtual reality was seen as the best solution because it is optimised for real time walkthroughs. It’s the next stage on from computer-aided design, said Mike Matthews, who manages the grocery store’s Computer Aided Design department. With CAD you can’t walk through in real time without more power. Intelligent Systems used Superscape Plc’s VRT virtual world authoring tool to develop the main geometric layout of the store from plans, drawings and on-site measurements. For the exterior model of the supermarket, it used Medit, a package designed by Medit Productions SA of Valencia in Spain, for use on Silicon Graphics Inc machines. It also used the dVS and dVise virtual environment operating system and virtual world management tools from Division Group Plc. The system runs on a Silicon Graphics Onyx machine. The virtual store will be up and running on a personal computer in the next four to five months. In the next year the supermarket operator is building 12 to 15 new stores, but the main changes are in extending existing stores. Virtual models will enable planners to adjust both major and minor details of a store. For example, they can change shelf heights and aisle widths. An actual model is no longer necessary. In a few seconds the designers can move the top shelf height down so everyone can reach it, at the expense of stock space, or make the shelf higher to maximise stock space.
By Abigail Waraker
Aisle widths can be changed instantly, so the aisle with baby’s nappies could be wider to allow for several prams. The space between the checkouts can be varied to make sure there is enough space for trolleys, pushchairs and wheelchairs to pass through. Even with CAD people make the mistake of putting checkouts too close together. But with virtual reality you can walk through with a trolley, Matthews said. In addition, new designs can be rolled into an old virtual store to see if the style of layout is suitable. In the next four months Sainsbury’s said it will have a generic concept store which it can use as the basis for the development of any new store. The virtual reality model is now being used to develop new ideas for its concept store, a notional store model for trying out new design ideas and building up a library of re-usable components. It is also a way of generating new ideas on store design without having to go through a full design process. The new virtual model makes store design much faster and much more cost-effective, Mike Broughton, Sainsbury’s business manager, said. New store designs currently start out as 350 to 450 paper plans, each taking several hours to draw. Then a physical mock-up is built. This has to be done for every new store. While it took six months to build the first virtual model, the work can be re-used for the next store development, cutting design time and the need for
physical models, which have to be changed each time the design is changed. Experimental designs can quickly be built on computer. Sainsbury’s goal is to be able to build a new virtual store in 30 minutes based on the work done so far. Intelligent Systems said it knows how to do this and hopes to have a system ready within a year. The partners see the secret to using virtual reality successfully in commerce as not treating it as a technology in isolation. We are not saying rip out all your CAD technology and replace it with virtual reality. Virtual reality is intended to be the ultimate interface. It is not the successor to architecture or CAD. It is just another tool, said Andrew Connell, lead researcher at Intelligent Systems. Sainsbury’s foresees integrating this system with its current business process.
It is technologically possible to link the tool to back-end databases. We are looking at going down that road now, said Matthews, but we need to prove a sound business case. In the future, this could means a virtual reality interface could be linked to a stock control mechanism. This could show that if the aisles are made one foot wider, then x amount of shelf space and y number of brands are lost, for example. Ultimately this could be done in real time. If we can see a number of practical business benefits then it is technologically feasible to have a virtual reality model of each store, Matthews said. Competition between supermarkets for customers is intense. And while this virtual reality tool is also designed to keep ahead of the competition, Sains bury’s does want to create a more efficient shopping environment for its customers. The adoption of the technology will not have a direct effect on keeping produce costs down in the short term, but it could improve customer relations if the inconvenience of store refits is kept as short as possible, and of course, the faster a new store is built, the sooner it can start making the company money.