Kimberly-Clark, Neenah, Wis.

Virtual Reality Merchandising 1/04/2010 7:00 AM Eastern

Kimberly-Clark, Neenah, Wis.

Jan 4, 2010 12:00 PM

Virtual Reality Merchandising

When Kimberly-Clark (K-C) set out to design a facility for researching new product and merchandising innovations, the project team searched for a way to create a hands-on design studio that did not require physical construction to evaluate new retail concepts. The company asked: What would happen if you could envision new floor plans, shelving, and even product packaging designs at the push of a button?

For the 130-year old company—a world leader in health, hygiene, and other personal-care products—the answer translates into faster, smarter product planning and strengthened relationships with its retail partners. K-C chose Mechdyne to create a state-of-the-art advanced visualization room as the centerpiece of its breakthrough Innovation and Design Studio in Neenah, Wis. The facility is part of a working environment that gives K-C partners fast time-to-insight about consumers and how they shop and ways to positively affect purchase decisions.

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The visualization room makes it possible for K-C to create realistic virtual models of retail outlets and explore merchandising concepts without the time-consuming and costly creation of any physical prototypes. Interactive computer-generated models allow K-C and its partners to literally walk through stores to examine different layouts and merchandising concepts and test the impact of concepts before implementing them in actual stores.

According to the company, K-C is one of only a few companies in the world to operate a fully integrated virtual-reality system as a part of its product design and development process. By engaging internal development teams and partners in virtual worlds, the company is able to spark better ideas and deeper insights aimed at improving and simplifying the shopping experience. Additionally, it allows collaboration on new product concepts and innovations.

Pioneering retail visualization

Bill Lynch, the K-C project manager responsible for implementation of the Innovation and Design Studio, and Mary Logghe, events planner and designer for the studio, explain how the concept developed from the initial vision.

“Initially, the visualization room was intended to showcase how our products would appear in retail settings and allow us to change the look and feel of the product packaging without physical prototypes,” Lynch says. “As planning progressed, we recognized opportunities to create a very dynamic experience that combined virtual and real world elements.”

Lynch, Logghe, and other members of the project team visited several existing design studios, including one used by a leading prepared foods company that blended several types of kitchen layouts arranged around a central meeting and conference space. For K-C, the investigation confirmed that a studio that fully immersed its partners and associates within authentic environments would have a dramatic impact.

“As we looked at what could be done, we expanded the concept to include both the virtual and physical store layouts inside a single, large studio space,” Logghe says. “This lets us create dramatic before and after scenarios that really engage our customers and lead to very productive planning and collaboration.”

Prior to the K-C project, no retailer had ever designed an interactive, immersive environment to test merchandising concepts in realtime. So while studying design studios, Lynch also began to build a short list of suppliers for the advanced visualization system, control room, and computer clusters used to generate the immersive computer models. Attending industry events and researching on the Web, he identified three potential suppliers to bid on the contract.

Kimberly-Clark, Neenah, Wis.

Jan 4, 2010 12:00 PM

Virtual Reality Merchandising

Virtual store for Kimberly-Clark's Innovation and Design Studio in Neenah, Wis.

Visualization room expertise

Mechdyne, which had designed theater-scale visualization environments for academic, government, and industrial clients, was initially asked to provide consulting services to translate the project team’s goals into a system specification that was used in the bid package.

Since the Innovation and Design Studio would blend both virtual and physical spaces, the team faced challenges in floor planning. About half of the physical space is occupied by the projectors, a screen that spans the width of the room, and the viewing/interaction area of the visualization room. The remainder of the room provides space to build out physical layouts or other structures/shelving needed to place K-C’s retail partners in proposed shopping environments. The space also contains a small waiting area, usually decorated as an upscale home showcasing K-C products, where customers are greeted before entering the main studio.

“We defined challenging system requirements, such as the absolute maximum possible screen area to achieve a wow factor and ultimate realism,” Lynch says. “But we also wanted the technology to be invisible, since the studio is all about the focus on our products and the store layouts. Mechdyne met the challenge, providing a finished system with a corporate boardroom look that conceals the underlying technology.”

Within a working area approximately 40ft. wide by 30ft. deep, the visualization room accommodates a butterfly-shaped screen with a 22ft. center area and two 10ft. wings. Sanyo SX+ and D LCD projectors (four on the center screen and two for each wing) are used to produce stereoscopic imagery, with the edges of each projected image blended to create a continuous image across the entire surface area. All images are reflected on mirror surfaces behind the screens, with the entire projector/mirror structure engineered by Mechdyne to ensure accurate calibration and stability.

Fast-track integration

While the initial research, planning, and engineering design extended more than 18 months, the visualization room integration ultimately was fast-tracked by K-C. A full-scale presentation and planning session with one of K-C’s largest global customers was scheduled in the studio less than five months after signing off on equipment acquisition.

Mechdyne was confident in its component-integration and build-out processes, notwithstanding the inevitable effects of Murphy’s Law. For example, the originally selected supplier of Mylar mirrors for the reflective system fell into bankruptcy. Mechdyne was able to source glass mirrors on short notice, leveraging its strong business relationships in the industry. By fully staging the system at its Marshalltown, Iowa, facility, Mechdyne also was able to validate the effectiveness of the exceptionally wide image blending required by the large screen area.

From start to finish, the visualization system was fully installed and operational just 16 weeks from start date, and a full week before the first scheduled presentation. Mechdyne committed two professional staff members on-site full-time through this period, coordinating with multiple construction trades and the project architects to ensure smooth integration in the overall room build-out.

The original design of the main operation station for the visualization room used two computer consoles to manage the four image surfaces. As K-C business teams worked with the system, operators and Mechdyne staff on site expanded this to four control computers, providing flexibility to quickly project different types of images (e.g. visualizations, still photos, business presentations) onto different areas of the screen.

Mechdyne staff remained on site to observe and provide technical assistance if needed through the first two customer work sessions in the new facility. From the first day of use, feedback from retailers has been consistently positive—K-C partners say they have never seen anything like the Innovation and Design Studio. Customer feedback and results at the retail level continue to prove the system’s value.

Kimberly Clark’s facility has hosted numerous visits and strategic meetings with key retail partners and serves as an ideation area for internal teams on an ongoing basis. K-C leaders confirm that virtual capabilities enable in-depth collaboration with partners and open new levels of strategic conversations with key contacts.

Leveraging virtual reality as research tool

The real power in K-C’s virtual capabilities is in leveraging the tool to deliver richer insights into shopper behavior, supported by its virtual shopping technology partner Red Dot Square Solutions. Virtual shopping research conducted across the United States in some 50 field-based facilities is helping K-C drive implementation of a robust Shopper Marketing strategy. Additionally, this research is helping measure the use of various forms of in-store messaging to gauge the value of the store as a marketing vehicle. Next Generation shelf merchandising solutions and Shopper Marketing programs have been tested using virtual capabilities and implemented across the United States in numerous key strategic partners' retail outlets.

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