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06/24/2016

TechBytes: Cool technologies at Wayfair Next innovation lab

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I recently had the opportunity to visit the Wayfair Next innovation lab at Wayfair’s downtown Boston headquarters.



My genial hosts, Wayfair co-founder Steven Conine and Wayfair Next director Mike Festa, explained the lab’s mission and let me demo some very cool technologies.



At its core, Wayfair Next is dedicated to developing innovative technologies that improve customer experience. Currently, the lab is focusing on 3D, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) solutions that help bring online products and design concepts to life.



In the 3D realm, I was shown a photo studio where an array of cameras snaps photos of products from more than 150 angles. These photos are completed in minutes, rather than the hours it would take to conduct a traditional professional shoot of that magnitude. Onsite employees then use software to translate all those different camera angles into realistic 3D product images.



“The renderings are more neutral than the promotional renderings provided by suppliers, who may try to highlight certain features or shoot the product in a certain light,” commented Festa.



However, the really interesting stuff at Wayfair Next is happening in VR and AR. The retailer is doing its best to stay in front of emerging technologies that will allow customers to digitally recreate or enhance their home environments.



One solution I experienced first-hand is an app built on the Oculus Rift VR platform. Donning an Oculus Rift headset, the user is immersed in a highly realistic, 360-degree simulation of a design area, such as the patio I “visited.” The simulation I experienced included a lake, birds singing in the background and a sped-up transition in lighting from sunrise to sunset.



Of most interest to consumers, by manipulating small plastic models displayed in front of me, I could move around items of furniture on the virtual patio. Movements I made with my hands in the real world were mimicked by products in the virtual world. This allowed me to easily and convincingly arrange, view and rearrange patio layouts.



The VR app built for the HTC Vive platform even more fully immerses the user into a new digital environment. Wearing an HTC Vive headset, I was able to walk around a room while traveling through a 360-degree simulation similar to the one offered by the Oculus Rift headset.



Carrying a real-life laser pointer, I was able to produce a beam of virtual light that selected digital objects in the VR simulation. Once again, I could mix and match items in a recreation of a patio. Whenever I got too close to a real-life wall or object, a handy virtual blue screen alerted me before a collision occurred.



I then checked out the WayfairView AR solution. Built on the Google Tango platform for the upcoming Lenovo smartphone, it let me place virtual objects from the Wayfair assortment into my real environment. I could better sense how items would fit and look in my surroundings. Users will also be seamlessly connected to Wayfair’s Android shopping app.



From what I saw, whenever VR and AR inevitably make their way into the mainstream connected consumer environment, Wayfair will be more than ready to deliver a tailored customer experience. Wayfair Next has a good grip today on what will be happening in e-commerce tomorrow.