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ARBW #7: STRIVR Started Training Quarterbacks: Now It Trains 140,000 Walmart Employees

Back when Robert Scoble and I were writing The Fourth Transformation, we heard about an VR software startup being used at Stanford University to reduce the physical impact on its quarterbacks during team practices.  Instead of exposing them to fierce linebackers during practice scrimmages, the quarterback could actually stay home, don a headset, and immerse himself in a real game previously played at Stanford Stadium. After our book came out, we enjoyed hearing about STRIVR just about every time we talked to a sports team about new technology.  

But a couple of weeks back I was blown away when a story broke about how Walmart had begun to use STRIVR to train 140,000 mid-level employees in company training academies using the very same STRIVR software.

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This came at a time, when conventional insider wisdom was starting to predict that VR would serve very little purpose other than as playthings for affluent, gamers. While I agree that AR will be the dominating mainstream technology, starting with a half-billion iPhones by year end, but I have maintained that VR has a few important applications, one is in medical treatment and the other is in training and education.

If training is a killer app for VR, then Walmart is the ultimate brand for proving that point. Walmart, as far as I can see, has done a better job than any other brick-and-mortar brand at adapting to online channels and using new technologies. It is already the third largest online retailer (after Amazon and Apple) and is growing online faster than Amazon.

It also tickled me, that STRIVR, a Silicon Valley startup that few people knew outside of college and pro sports circles, had leapfrogged so gracefully into the mainstream. If, a prospect has not previously heard of you, they will ask you who you do business with. If the answer happens to be Walmart, you pretty much have a free pass into any retailer with sufficient budget, or so it would seem to me.

This is important because most retailers right now are having troubles modernizing customer experiences. If there is nothing new to see and share with friends online: If there is nothing to attract young people into your stores then you customers age and you become painfully less relevant, as Macy's, JC Penny, Sears, BestBuy and so many other retailers are learning as they experience continuing atrophy going into this Holiday season.

How did STRIVR land Walmart? Well, there had to be a sports connection, confirming a traditional practice of people who share common recreational interests elsewhere being favorably inclined to do business with each other. In this case, it was sports a very common shared experience. The twist is that involves the Stanford Cardinals and the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, two traditional college football rivals.

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Brock McKeel, senior director of operations at Walmart's Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters was watching a Razorback practice, when he saw players wearing headsets instead of helmets that were making all the right moves to avoid opposing players who were not there. They were immersed in a STRIVR game and thus avoiding potentially dangerous contact that STRIVR makes unnecessary. 

"It got me thinking about how Walmart could use STRIVR for the same purposes. We can teach virtually to make Walmart safer and have our associates learn faster," he told me, "while lowering costs." Walmart has only completed a pilot program of about 35 trainees in one of its tech-infused Walmart Academies. STRIVR trained future department managers and sales associates with what Black Friday will be like this year by immersing them in a 3D video of last year's Black Friday. Each classroom only uses one headset. One person wears it, and the rest of the class watches it on a large screen. It is the same technique that started showing up at tech shows in 2014, when almost no one had tried on AR or VR headsets.

Better and Lighter

Derek Belch, co-founder and CEO, developed the software while simultaneously studying at Stanford for an advanced degree in VR and serving as an assistant coach on the football team. Bringing STRIVR software to the Razorbacks is perhaps the only time in recorded history that a Stanford football staffer ever helped the Razorbacks, a traditional rival on the playing field, and it paid off with what Belch told me was a "fortuitous inbound," in the form of McKeel's inquiry.

Belch told me STRIVR has started to see significant business beyond sports and even Walmart. It counts a bank, an automaker and United Rentals. The common denominator, he said, " was that employees are being trained better in less time and at lower cost.

He also said it was "lighter," training in that STRIVR entertains where other training tools such as 2D films and text manuals generally bore the students.  "People learn better by experience, rather than sitting and watching," he told me. "I think anyone who actually experiences VR training will realize that the observation becomes almost immediately self-evident."

Walmart is rolling STRIVR training to all 200 Walmart Academy training centers where about 140,000 employees should be STRIVR trained in time for Christmas season next year. He praised STRIVR for the speed and effectiveness of the VR training.  "Everyone wants to participate." While he declined to predict, he thought STRIVR would contribute favorably to employee loyalty and retention. 

Ultimately, Walmart--like any smart merchant--is more interested in customer experience than any other single thing--including short-term profits. What STRIVR ultimately teach staff is customer empathy. "STRIVR helps our managers and associates feel the customer's pain when they aren't being waited on in the Black Friday video."

Retail Armageddon
Ultimately, Walmart remains the world's largest retailer overall, but it faces an eventual Armageddon against 5,000 megaton gorilla named Amazon.
This may be overstatement, because I don't really believe either of these two retail giants will defeat the other any time soon. But, like the Cardinals vs. the Razorbacks, they will make concerted efforts to gain ground at the expense of the other on the playing field.

Walmart has seen the importance of contextual technologies such as data, social media, the IoT, location technologies AR and VR and has been aggressively adopting them for year. Last year, it acquired Jet.com, an e-commerce company for $3 billion and Jet plays a role in the updating of Walmart Academies.   

As Walmart moves into tech, Amazon is moving on a similar trajectory toward bricks. After experimenting with a few Amazon stores, it recently acquired Whole Foods, a chain of elite supermarkets for $200 million. More significantly in any competition against Walmart is that it puts Amazon into the grocery business: Walmart is America's largest grocer by all measures.

Ultimately, this battle will be won or lost not online or off, but in which company offers the best customer experiences. Amazon focuses on making it the easiest place to buy and with infinite shelf space, perhaps the only place. From what Walmart folk told me, their strategy will be to provide the best human-to-human experience possible and STRIVR is an obvious piece in that puzzle.

IDC's Narrow Estimate

IDC last week, has been issuing increasingly bullish forecasts for AR, but somehow, I don't think it just isn't quite bullish enough.

It recently forecast total AR/VR sales growing from $11 billion in 2016 to a hefty $215 billion industry by 2021, which certainly seemed sufficient for me, until I noticed a meager forecast for retail of $422 million during that period.

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But, IDC only sees product showcasing as a place for AR retail growth. This is the use of technologies to let customers see tagged information on products such as user reviews, or product data as well as 3D product demos or marketing offers. This, of course will be huge and soon, being triggered by Apple AR that should come out as soon as next month when the new Apple iPhone and iOS 11 will make an estimated half-billion AR-ready smartphones by this holiday shopping season. I think product showcasing alone will be far bigger IDC estimates, but then, I'm not very good at counting beans.

Where I'm certain it falls short, is in its failure to mention other ways retail and consumer brands will use AR and to a lesser degree VR such as STRIVR training software. I recently spotlighted CEO Vision, LLC, an AR plugin for Excel spreadsheets that will enable data visualization. In fact there are several promising AR data visualization companies that could someday replace spreadsheets altogether, this alone would be worth over the $422 million IDC estimate.

That in itself could be worth over $100 million in four years. Then there is training, the value of which Walmart and STRIVR demonstrate. Then there is the use of order fulfillment and logistics, that PWC says is already improving enterprise logistics at places like Boeing and DHL which inevitably will find its way into retail stockrooms. 

I'm reasonably certain that executive recruiting will use AR or VR the way the Golden State Warriors used it to show Kevin Durant  how San Francisco differs from Oklahoma City and how much his future teammates wanted him to join them.

Then there's mobile software that just makes it easier for shoppers to find what they want more easily.  Aisle411 is one of several internal mapping mobile apps. It works with malls and big block stores to let shoppers find precisely what they want by following AR arrows on real floors that guide shoppers to their destinations. Nathan Pettyjohn, founder and CEO told me he hopes eventually to have celebrities escort the shoppers and suggest accessories that might go well with their desired blue jeans as shopper and 3D luminary stroll together.

With deference to IDC, they may have covered some of these numbers in other parts of their report, but I very much doubt that they have considered all of these aspects of the retail transformation that requires a certain level of omniscience. AR is perhaps the most dynamic market in history and no one can really project how big it will be even before this holiday season closes.

In fact, no one can just yet because so much is happening so very fast, and it’s changing so very much. In fact, it is even putting the time honored tradition of Christmas Shopping in upheaval.

2018: The First Retail AR Christmas

I have never been to the Philippines and have never even considered it as a leader in either retailing or immersive consumer technologies. But just take a few seconds to watch the above clip from last Christmas at Manilla’s Bonifacio Global Cities.

Look at how shoppers are engaging with an augmented Santa Claus, using the same big screen mechanics that STRIVR uses to train sales associates and quarterbacks. Look at the attention it generates and how it gives parents and their kids something to talk about or post about. Compare that with the long queues to plop your kid on the lap of a tired and perspiring department store Santa who may agree to that pony that you can't put by the chimney with care. 

This is just a start of AR changing the commercial holiday experience. Perhaps this year, some smart mall strategist will contract a creative AR studio such as Groove Jones, who has created AR activations already for Comcast, McDonald's and others. They could create an AR Santa and his reindeer flying overhead as Rudolph's red nose casts beams of light on special tangible attractions.

In the candy store your kids may have visions of sugar plums, trifles, and untraditional almond clusters that dance overhead. Perhaps shoppers with iPhones will point at an outfit on a mannequin and see what they would look in it before clicking for a clerk who will bring it out in the right size.

All this and so much more is already doable--if not affordable this Christmas.  Still, look at some of the AR features that are already pulling in customers such as:

  • Sephora is selling beauty products online and in stores using an AR mobile app. The user tries on eye shadow or lipstick virtually, and then can click to buy a product either in a store or while riding on a subway car.
  • Lowe’s uses Google’s Tango AR technology to make it easier to redesign kitchen or bathroom. This may not be a just-in-time for Christmas item, but it gives you some sense of how Lowe’s is trying to get a step ahead of arch rivals like Home Depot.
  • If you are thinking of giving someone you love a Porsche this Christmas, because the Tesla Model 3 orders are still backed up. This AR display may help you choose color and model in a new and useful way.

Already, first movers are finding company in the form of competitors.

Sephora launched its program last year, and this year L’oreal came into AR retailing in a big way. Porsche, may not have been first automaker to use AR product showcasing. Acura arrived at about the same time and is showing a good deal of innovation by igniting an AR car race on Facebook. Every major car maker is using AR and VR in multiple ways ranging from 3D training manuals to auto repair to virtual test drives.

We may not all be car shopping or lipsticking or home remodeling for Christmas, but it does give you an idea of what is possible in the consumer marketplace. It does show you how brands are starting to take competitive battles into immersive technology and how marketing becomes more experiential than message-based.

Add into that the aforementioned Apple AR avalanche plus expected new Tango and Androids submissions plus Microsoft, Samsung, Meta, and everyone this side of the eight flying reindeer it becomes a low-risk forecast to predict 2-18 will be the first true AR Christmas.

If you are a brand or merchant thinker, I hope you started planning for next year in 3D sometime soon.

Elsewhere in AR World

Disney Magic Bench

You won't be able to buy it this Holiday shopping season or next, and may take a few years before it will be in my personal budget, but by next 2018 you may be able to experience AR without either a headset or a smartphone on visits to selected Disney Stores.

Currently, the Disney Magic Bench exists only in Disney Labs, but as you sit on it, and gaze into a smart mirror, not noticing the tech installed under your seat and in the glass, you will begin interact with child-friendly critters who visit you. Haptic technology will let you actually feel bunnies when you pet them or be rewarded by an elephant handing you or your child a golden ball.

This is the future of retail as I see it. Ultimately the technology fades into the background as it does under the hood of your car or under the glass screen of your TV. AR will change the very experience of shopping, not just in stores but online, where what you look at in the screen reaches out and touches you.

Here's Looking a Brew, Kid

Canadian tech developer Finger Food has created a holographic application for a brewery that enables users to see how beer is brewing using Hololens technology.

Called HoloBridge, it allows affiliated Oregon brewer Deschutes to see life-sized holographic brewery equipment with augmented further by live streaming data, letting the makers interact with visual data at full scale, offering context and insights that was not previously possible.

I have a married daughter and grandkids in Oregon, giving me the chance to sample a few products from local breweries. My favorite is Deschutes’ Mirror Pond Pale Ale. So I support any technology that will make it even better.

More important, this application is yet another example of one of our fundamental points of this Transformation: AR is going to change nearly every aspect of work, no matter if you are selling shirts at Walmart, groceries at Whole Foods, serving as a first responder to an explosion, fine tuning sports cars or selling space in unbuilt structures.

Davy Crockett Curating the Alamo

Davy Crockett, formerly King of the Wild Frontier, is returning to the Alamo where he was killed 181 years ago—only this time he will be immortalized as a talking holographic built on the same AR technology used in Pokemon. He’ll be joined Mexican soldados, Sam Houston and other combatants in the legendary San Antonio battle.

The local tourist bureau announcement says these holographs will interact with visiting tourists, but I have a hunch the conversation will only go in one direction in the near term.

Along with retail, Scoble and I see every aspect of the travel business being changed. When you shop for hotels, you will tour available rooms in VR from the comfort of your own home. You will choose whether or not you wish to tour Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London by virtually visiting each before you decide.

Even the restaurants you are considering will be presented this way.

Construction & Community Relations

Yet another hot AR category involves architecture, construction and real estate. A lot of what I see overlaps from one company to another. Mortenson Construction has been building things in central Seattle for about as long as I can remember. We covered them in Age of Context because they were doing remarkable things with contextual communities in educating and being educated by neighborhoods being impacted by their development projects.

Now they are showing the same type of thought leadership using AR. A simple mobile app using Tango technology for Android smartphones allows residents near the University of Washington to point their phones at a construction site and see what Mortenson will build there.

This allows affected residents to actually see what will happen without having to trek down to City Hall and unroll complicated, two-dimensional blueprints. Thus, they can ask intelligent questions and provide feedback to the developer who seems actually eager to get community feedback.

VR Training for Law Enforcement

Police training has become a continuing controversy in these troubling modern times. No matter what side of this issue you are on, you will probably agree that better training is a good thing.

CBS News went to Monmouth County, NJ., to show footage of police being trained in VR. Not surprisingly, Police Academy cadets are using VR similarly to how Walmart employees use it. One dons a headset and becomes immersed in a real scenario, while other cadets watch on a big screen.

I can’t think of a situation where this training can achieve more in a shorter period of time than this form of training.

Can you?

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