The humble toilet might not be the first subject that comes to mind when considering exciting new applications for VR and AR, but Lixil sees the technologies playing an important role in its future.
The Japanese building materials conglomerate and Olympic sponsor, which owns brands such as Grohe and American Standard, has until now operated primarily on a business-to-business level, but wants to forge closer links with everyday consumers. As part of this effort, it has installed a 'digital studio' next to its flagship premises in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district.
The studio invites people to don headsets in order to visualise how Lixil's various products would look in a regular living space. Lixil also offers a kit for home use via an app. The company invited Campaign to try it out. In truth, the headset experience was not the smoothest, and the usefulness of being able to move a toilet around the living room was not immediately apparent. On the other hand, being able to see how the various components of a kitchen look together and to optimise the formation is clearly quite helpful. While space in the studio is limited, some physical installations are also thrown in for good measure.
Yugo Kanazawa, senior marketing director and chief digital officer, said increased consumer interest in renovation as opposed to brand new housing meant more people tend to shop for materials without being accompanied by a builder or architect. He said they are often impulsive under these circumstances.
"As a result, we need to find new ways to grab their attention and inspire them in a short period of time, because we are in some ways competing for their attention with their next potential trip to Hawaii. [The studio] is an initiative to move closer to where the consumer traffic is...while compensating for limited space with digital technology."
Kanazawa noted that people like to compare things for themselves rather than take a consultant's word as to what they should choose. He said the studio was designed to be an "entry touch point" and that 3D rendering in showrooms had proved popular. "We believe VR/AR is the solution that will allow the consumer to experience the product in their home environment before they make the purchase, just as you would test drive a car before you buy one," he said.
The extent to which VR has been hyped means any brand venturing into this territory has a lot to live up to, and most experiences ultimately underwhelm. While Lixil's effort is hardly mindblowing, it deserves credit as a pragmatic approach that treats the technology as a utility rather than a gimmick, serves a clear purpose and doesn't overpromise.