Niche technologies add to the visual aspect of retail and provide a more immersive and personalized experience
Even the most ardent of shoe lovers would perhaps think twice before buying a shoe online. Most would want to physically try the footwear before purchasing it. But what if technology allows e-commerce sites to comfort users by allowing them to try the footwear virtually?
Findmeashoe.com, which is owned by EMBL Shopping Services India Pvt. Ltd, a Bengaluru-based start-up, is doing precisely this. It offers virtual three-dimensional (3D) fitting services for the footwear category to e-commerce firms. The solution entails a mobile-based foot scanner that requires customers to take just three photos with their smartphone to register the profile of their feet.
The mobile app takes advantage of image-processing technology to scan the feet and the shoe scanner uses 3D scanning technology to create a 3D model of the footwear.
An algorithm then runs in the background, based on more than 10,000 foot profiles and more than 1,000 physical trials, to see if a shoe fits the foot that was scanned. The recommendation is done based on multiple parameters including foot dimensions, shape, size, style, design, construction and material of the footwear.
“Currently, the only way to check if the shoe fits is to order the product and try it at home. Physical trials come at the cost of the e-retailer. Our solution mimics the physical trial process virtually in the website/mobile app," said Anand Ganesan, chief executive officer (CEO) of Findmeashoe.com.
“Consumers can virtually try the footwear before closing the purchase. This reduces return hassles and increases confidence in shopping online. It also saves on the return logistics for the e-commerce businesses," he added.
The company has filed multiple patents for its technology, workflow and business model.
Another start-up Whodat Tech Pvt. Ltd, also based in Bengaluru, has an augmented reality (AR)-based solution to provide additional (virtual) information through a digital display like that of a smartphone.
“When purchasing a home-decor item, a major concern for a buyer is whether that product will look good and where are they going to keep it. With AR, we can solve this problem by showing the product on a smartphone (or tablet)—how it will look in its intended environment. We have built a framework that lets us do just that," explained Kaushik Das, co-founder and chief technology officer (CTO) of the company.
Although AR can be great for driving user engagement and novel experiences, Das was convinced that it could do much more than that and become a useful tool to help users in their everyday lives, “at least with respect to the shopping experience".
Whodat is also working on improving its product-visualisation solutions using AR—both in terms of software and hardware, said Das.
Online and offline retailers typically use Big Data analytics to reach their target audience. But start-ups such as Findmeashoe.com and Whodat are helping in raising the bar by providing such enhanced user experiences by taking advantage of technologies like virtual reality (VR), AR, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
Little surprise, then, that Findmeashoe.com and Whodat are part of the Target Accelerator Program, which was launched in India in February 2014 by Minneapolis-headquartered retailer Target Corp. to incubate transformational ideas that could improve its business and add value to the retail industry.
“Small start-ups with innovative ideas using these technologies are seeing good traction. Many online retailers have been showing interest in them," said Ravi Gururaj, chairman and co-founder of Frictionless Ventures and a member of the Nasscom Executive Council.
“These niche start-ups may get licensed or acquired. So we will see a lot of start-ups coming in the space, because large companies are experimenting with them now," he added.
This is just “the tip of the iceberg", said Gururaj, adding that even though VR and AR are niche technologies, they add to the visual aspect of retail that “is very critical" and provide a more consumer-friendly, convenient, immersive, and personalized shopping and branding experience.
Image processing solutions, too, have become important for e-commerce companies.
Turnaround Systems Pvt. Ltd provides solutions to automate generation of rotating 3D images via its cloud-based automated image editing solution, Pixter. The solution uses machine learning and image processing to process and edit the product images.
“Image editing using Photoshop has been the same for more than a decade now. At Turnaround, we are offering automated image processing solutions for the e-commerce industry. In e-commerce, images play a very central role and thousands of man-hours are spent every week editing images manually, which we intend to change," said Sreepriya Koppula, founder of PixterPro.com. She added that her company’s solution lets users upload photos and get the production-ready images “within a few minutes".
Koppula said that her team will soon launch a mobile version of Pixter, where one can click photos and get the processed and clean background images back on mobile instantly.
“Our ultimate vision is a tech-utopia where machines perform all the menial tasks that are currently done by humans, and PixterPro.com is our first step towards this future," she said.
Another Bengaluru-based start-up, House of Blue Beans Interactive Media Pvt. Ltd, is also working on the visualisation solutions for e-commerce firms’ customers. “We are currently working on solutions based on virtual reality that can enable faster ‘go to market’ time at much lower costs. These solutions will help merchandising teams create visual experiences with ease at faster turnaround times," said Keshav Vijayaraghavan, the firm’s co-founder.
Wazzat Labs Inc., a Hyderabad-based firm, on its part, offers a visual recognition solution that allows for “intuitive product discovery, easier inventory management, and personalised engagements for online as well as offline retail stores", according to Jay Guru Panda, co-founder and CEO.
“Retailers can get an image search on their Web and mobile stores, and power consumers to search for similar products in fashion and home decor segments by simply selecting or snapping a photo," he said.
P.N. Sudarshan, senior director of consulting firm Deloitte in India, says he believes that it is this “USP (unique selling proposition of such start-ups) that will carry the niche sectors". He explained that when firms sell only furniture or apparel, the differentiator will lie in “how they provide the visual experience—like how a product looks, fits and affects the surroundings".
“Success of such niche retailers will depend on these factors involving virtual user experience. Even horizontal players like big online and offline retailers have started to use these newer technologies, but this just adds value to theiroverall business. As they increase adoption of the newer technologies, we will have to see how that pans out," he added.