Star Trek-Style Holodeck Coming into Focus at Lowe’s

We’ve all done it — gone into a store to figure out what we wanted to buy only to go home and buy it online from whoever offered the lowest price and free returns. One way to account for this new consumer behavior is to consider how little brick-and-mortar retail has changed since the Internet exploded into our lives in the mid-1990s.

But a number of retailers are looking for ways to leverage technology to get shoppers excited about buying in-store again. Some are eliminating the checkout line by letting customers pay by swiping QR codes, for example. And mainstream retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot have adopted Apple’s roaming point-of-sale approach.

Today Lowe’s took an even bigger step into new shopping experiences, launching a holograph-based virtual reality showroom dubbed the Holoroom.

Say you’re going to remodel your bathroom. You’d likely go to a brick-and-mortar store to see the colors and hardware for yourself. But you may still have trouble envisioning how the wall color, tiles and taps will look together. Step into the Holoroom, where they will be displayed in augmented reality.

“We know that for many homeowners, the struggle to visualize a completed home improvement project or to share that vision with others can stop a project in its tracks. The Holoroom is our solution to that problem,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

The Holoroom is the first project to come out of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, which is also being officially launched today after about a year of groundwork. The division, a participant in Singularity University’s Corporate Innovation Exchange, seeks to improve consumer experience by bringing bits of science fiction to life.

So the allusion to Star Trek’s holodeck is no coincidence. Lowe’s also worked with SciFutures, a consultancy that uses science fiction to develop concrete ideas about how to use rapidly-developing technologies.

While hologram technology has been improving in recent years along with 3D scanning, its function is mostly to disrupt 3D printing as a rapid-prototyping system. Consequently, there was no existing product that met Lowe’s retail needs.

“We investigated a number of simulator solutions, we felt that those rooms didn’t design the level of detail that would be appropriate for a retail environment. They’re designed really for one person to be in the environment, and there’s some motion sickness involved,” SciFutures CEO Ari Popper told Singularity Hub.

Lowe’s cobbled together 3D scanning methods that would work well for metallic objects and matte paint and developed the augmented reality display system from scratch. The cost of each grid room is relatively low, so while the original Holoroom will be in Toronto, similar rooms will make their way into many stores. All told, Lowe’s boasts 15 million customers every week.

Customers using the Holoroom first use an iPad app to spec out the room they’re remodeling. As they select products from the Lowe’s catalogue to put in the room, the objects appear in a model in the app. The customers can move them around or delete them until they’re satisfied. At that point, they step into the hologram space, which consists of walls with grids on them that the phone uses to track with technology similar to Google’s Tango. The tablet serves as a kind of de facto goggle — a giant monocle, really — allowing couples to experience the illusion together. Shoppers leave the store with a link to a 3D image of the room they designed to share with family and friends.

“You can walk straight up to that bathtub and look straight down and see the drain,” Popper said.

Lowe’s foray into high tech capitalizes on recent developments in holography.

“Ten years ago, the holodeck seemed like a dream. Now, it feels within reach,” Phil Rogers, a corporate fellow at Advanced Micro Devices, the computer chip maker, told the New York Times in January.

Once limited to silvery images on credit cards, holography made a splash last year when University of Illinois computer scientists showed off an immersive holograph room, CAVE2, that projected images on an array of LED screens. Users wore goggles to get the full 3D effect, and a wand allowed them to interact with the objects on the screens. One setting they mocked up? Star Trek’s holodeck, of course.

Perhaps the perfect kitchen feels like a dream barely within reach, too. Well, it may remain a dream for a few more months.

Like other computer “screens,” the room displays inputs processed elsewhere. That means Lowe’s has to scan every item before it can appear in the Holoroom. The company is beginning with bathrooms and will continue to expand to other rooms — as well as locations beyond the pioneering Toronto store — in coming months.

Cameron Scott
Cameron Scott
Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.
Don't miss a trend
Get Hub delivered to your inbox