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The Next Cues on Innovation Could Come From Science-Fiction Comic Books

Six years ago, science-fiction writers and comic-book storytelling kickstarted Lowe’s avant-garde Holoroom experience that leverages virtual reality (VR) to aid home-improvement shoppers in better visualizing products in their own living spaces.

Amanda Manna, co-founder and COO of Uncommon Partners, said at the recent PI Apparel in New York that many businesses express a desire to do things differently, but end up repeating the same old behaviors, like it or not. We all say we want to change and to innovate, she said, but large organizations are often built to maintain the status quo rather than to break off with new ideas.

“Most organizations think and act sequentially,” said Manna, who previously served as head of narrative-driven innovation & uncommon partnership development for Lowes Labs. “Once something starts to be successful, companies start to build processes around that—but then the organization starts to calcify.”

Even when companies manage to truly innovate, it often happens in a “siloed” lab separate from the main enterprise and isn’t brought fully into the fold, effectively limiting the impact of what could be disruptive ideas.

Lowes wanted to avoid those missteps, and took a radical approach to thinking about what the future of the customer experience could be. The newly developed innovation team took much of its inspiration from author Joseph Campbell and his fixation on the ideas of the “hero” and the “myth.” But more than that, the team focused on the role and the power of storytelling. Stories, Manna said, are how we escape the mundane, through television shows, books and movies; stories help us process and make sense of things and inspire us to imagine.

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That’s why Lowes brought those science writers in and let them run wild, to see what kind of future they could dream up—what customers would want from the shopping experience at some far-off point in the future. It was 2012, when things like virtual reality were just beginning to permeate the collective consciousness but were still looked at mostly as novelties best left to the video gaming and entertainment industry.

But when the writers came back with a tale of a couple redoing their kitchen and being able to “see” what it would look like with new appliances, treatments and more, the innovation team presented the concept to the executive leadership and were told “if we don’t do this, someone else will.”

With that vote of confidence, the home-improvement chain launched the Holoroom 1.0, an iPad-based tool that 55 percent of surveyed shoppers described as helpful for visualizing their bathroom redesigns. That’s significant, Manna said, because there’s $70 billion in lost opportunities due to consumers who don’t even begin a home project because they’re unsure how the finished room would look—or because they lacked the visuals or other info to properly convince their partner.

That first effort and ensuing onslaught of customer feedback quickly led to Holoroom 2.0, a more fully immersive experience using Oculus Rift VR headsets in store. Because shoppers wanted to be able to take their VR experience home with them from the store to share with friends and family, Lowes added vending machines dispensing complimentary Google Cardboard headsets to participating Holoroom locations. Plus, the retailer added trained designers to store to provide a guided design experience.

Manna said that engagement with the Holoroom stimulated “totally different conversation.” in stores. “We became a destination where people were inspired to design their homes,” she added.

Lowes found other applications for VR as well, realizing its potential as a customer education and learning tool. Cutting window blinds—hard even for employees to do—got easier with VR training, and 42 percent of customers who used the training experience said they recalled all the steps in the process, Manna said.

With a taste of how technology can enhance the customer experience, Lowes innovated in other areas as well, adding a robot—dubbed the Lowebot—that can serve shoppers in multiple languages and guide customers to products of interest.

To encourage the next generation of design professionals, Lowes Innovation Labs partnered with the Savannah College of Art and Design in spring 2016 on a narrative-driven innovation course, following that up a year later with a class in the sequential art department designed to help students master the art of storytelling using tools like cartoons, comic books and storyboarding.