PROFILE: Virtual Worlds

Virtual Worlds: we’ll render rendering obsolete

Virtual Worlds’ new 4D Theatre software immerses showroom customers in a simulated version of their kitchen or bathroom and allows them to choose products from a database of thousands of brands. Managing director Nathan Maclean (pictured) tells
Tim Wallace why he believes it will shape the future of KBB retail

Let’s face it, anyone using Virtual Worlds 4D Theatre looks like a drunk shuffling round the showroom with a small portable television strapped to their head. But first impressions can be deceptive. I’m told most people who give it a try quickly become converts. It just takes a bit of time to get used to.

It’s hard to fully appreciate what this totally immersive 4D experience is all about unless you strap on the goggles yourself. So when Virtual Worlds MD Nathan Maclean invited me to the company’s HQ in Milton Keynes, I did just that.

It’s also easy to be cynical with technology like this. Much like connected appliances, there’ll always be those who regard the whole concept of virtual reality as just a gimmick. Some also claim that the older generation – the ones with the money – are the people least likely to buy into the idea.

But Maclean insists that the opposite is true. 4D Theatre removes the barrier of the traditional keyboard, mouse and monitor, he tells me. An older person might not understand that, but they understand walking through a virtual kitchen or bathroom – which is exactly what he then gets me to do.

Donning my Oculus Rift headset, I’m suddenly in a typical bathroom – able to walk around at leisure and make choices on the products I’d like. Virtual Worlds’ original ‘4D Showroom’ version of the software only allows customers to navigate the room via a joystick while sitting down. But 4D Theatre offers a fully immersive experience, allowing me to inspect individual products and information videos to enhance my knowledge before I buy.

I can even run my hands into water flowing from a tap, although it turns out I’ve been given the female version of the software, which gives me slender, girly arms and pointed fingernails. The effect is a bit disconcerting, especially when I look in a mirror and there’s nobody staring back. But I can even walk into a running shower and watch droplets of water bounce off my virtual body.

I can quickly see why customers would enjoy the 4D Theatre experience, not just for the fun bits, but for the ability to see how products look in situ, and then quickly try out various other options from a database of more than 100 manufacturers and thousands of products. Until now, their focus has been mainly on bathrooms, but the plan now is to swing towards kitchens.

The software also gives the retailer a great opportunity for up-selling. If a customer isn’t happy with the bath or basin you’ve chosen, it takes seconds to switch it to a more upmarket brand, giving customers the desire to up-spec. No wonder so many brands agree to pay to have their products on Virtual Worlds’ expanding database.

In all, it’s an impressive piece of kit – although at £9,000 for an initial licence fee, then another £750 a month, it’s not cheap. But the hope is that, among its many other benefits, it gives showrooms a point of difference in an age where growth in online sales is becoming an increasing threat…

4D Theatre: Virtual Worlds' new software lets customers walk around inside their new kitchen or bathroom
4D Theatre: Virtual Worlds’ new software lets customers walk around inside their new kitchen or bathroom

Q: What’s in it for retailers?
A: It fast-tracks the sales process. It took a long time to identify what customers liked before, but this helps them. With 4D Theatre, you’ve got a tool that overcomes the problem of restricted display space. If it’s not on display, it’s very difficult to sell. Every retailer will tell you that. We’re shaping the future of KBB retail. We’re empowering showrooms to close more sales, increase margins and shorten their sales cycle. The showrooms need something to make them a more attractive destination to online.

Q: Who else is going down this route?
A: We have competitors proclaiming to be doing virtual reality, but they’re muddying the waters. They want to be seen to be ‘in the game’. But it’s not virtual reality, it’s a fixed camera point and you’re looking round a rendered scene. We’ve been doing panoramic renders since 2005. They’re trying to keep up with us.

Q: So what’s the difference with virtual reality?
A: You’re immersed in that space. It’s a simulation of the room, like the Star Trek holodeck. We’re going to render rendering obsolete! The other thing we see is competitors rubbishing virtual reality. Some have said they’re doing 4D in Europe and bringing it to the UK, then in the next sentence they say it’s a gimmick and distracts designers. So it’s a mixed message. If you don’t believe in it, why deliver it to your customers? We’ve got them on edge. It’s great!

An analogy we use is walking round a house before you buy it – the kitchen and bathroom are the most important rooms in the house. It would seem mad to buy either without stepping inside.

Q: Tell us about the history of the product.
A: In 2015, we launched the first 4D VR headset. We’re not about gimmicks, we’re about proper tools for the industry. We identify a problem and then think how can we fix it? Virtual Reality was the fix. It’s 100% developed in-house.

Q: But do some retailers see it as too gimmicky?
A: It’s proving itself. We’ve got retailers who are claiming that by changing from 3D to 4D, they’ve seen an increase in revenue of 17 to 20%. Virtual reality allows the consumer to understand how their choices affect the room. It’s aspirational. They say ‘my budget was this, but if I spend an extra £1,000 I can have that…’

Q: How many retailers have signed up to 4D?
A: Over 150, with [previous incarnation] 4D Showroom – low, middle and top-end. Then we’ve got West One in London doing 4D Theatre, and companies like CP Hart are showing great interest in it. I’m pretty certain they’re going to take it on. A lot of their designers have seen it and love it.

Q: So it’s a big step up from 3D to 4D…
A: It’s a massive step up. It’s a whole different proposition. The types of barriers we get from retailers include that people won’t want to put it on their head. They say, ‘this is for dealers who don’t know how to sell bathrooms and kitchens’. But businesses need to adapt. It’s a powerful tool.

Q: Are showrooms stagnating?
A: The showrooms and the CAD companies. Not all showrooms, but I’d say pretty much all CAD companies. We see a huge shift. When we were a CAD company, revenue was low, we weren’t valued as much as we are now.

Q: How many products are in your portfolio?
A: Hundreds of thousands. We’ve got over 100 manufacturers on board. The difference is manufacturers pay us to have their products on the system. They pay a subscription for that.

Q: How much space is needed for 4D Theatre?
A: A minimum of 2 x 3sq m – the larger the better. That space is so versatile. It can give you 100sq m of virtual reality.

Q: Is the first question, ‘how much will it cost?’
A: Yes, that’s the main one. It’s £9,000 for an initial licence fee and £750 a month ongoing. It’s a premium product and huge investment has gone into it. It includes a full-screen video wall.

Q: What’s the target?
A: We launched at the end of May and have got three or four paying users. This is going to pay for itself time and time again. I’d like to see 50 with 4D Theatre in the first 12 months. It’s an exclusive product, but we don’t offer exclusivity.

4D Showroom is a sit down with a joystick package. But 4D Theatre is the showroom, it’s centre stage. You’ll have to take out displays to make room for this. Now we’re swinging our focus towards kitchens. The 4D technology offers so much more to kitchens.

Q: Are you looking to expand outside the UK?
A: We want to take it worldwide. We want Virtual Worlds to be a globally-recognised brand representing British excellence.

Q: What do your rivals make of 4D?
A: We see this as a race now. There’s no way our competitors will sit back and watch us capitalise on it. They thought it would fizzle out.

Q: What’s Virtual Worlds’ turnover?
A: Over £2 million. What we’re doing is reinvesting. It’s putting a firm foundation in place and testing it before you balloon. It’s our 20th year but, with the new direction we’re going in, it’s early days.

Q: Where might this technology take us?
A: In the future, the goggles will be replaced by a pair of glasses – the lens will be a processor in itself. There’s billions being invested. When you’ve got Facebook investing £2 billion in Oculus, how can anyone say it’s a gimmick? It’s going to change the way we socialise, it’s going to change the way we do business and it’s going to change the way consumers buy. We’re making sure we’re giving the consumer the key to unlock that market. And we want to make sure our competitors’ customers are locked out.

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