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Lowe’s innovates with sci-fi to expand and enhance its Microsoft HoloLens mixed-reality kitchen design experience for customers

At select Lowe’s stores around the United States, customers can design their dream kitchen from the floor up, with an experience that may feel like science fiction, but is happening right now using mixed reality.

If you’re planning a renovation for the hub of your home, there will soon be an enhanced version of the mixed-reality design solution first introduced by Microsoft and the home improvement company in March in Lynnwood, Washington, and Garner, North Carolina. The latest experience was unveiled on-stage during Monday’s keynote presentation at the Microsoft Ignite Conference in Atlanta and will be available later this year at five stores, including the Lynnwood and Garner stores.

Now, customers can use Lowe’s HoloLens kitchen design tool, which can analyze their Pinterest boards to define their personal style and provide product and design recommendations based on the look and feel they want to create. Then, with HoloLens, customers will be able to see a full-sized holographic kitchen in front of them that they can customize, from changing cabinet styles, sizes and colors to manipulating the size of an island before making a final decision. The experience gives customers confidence they’ll love their kitchen once it’s installed without bringing home a single swatch card or sample.

On the back end, the Microsoft Cortana Intelligence Suite helps deliver analysis of those Pinterest boards, as well as real-time feedback for Lowe’s to make more tailored recommendations to their customers as trends and preferences evolve. This experience incorporates cognitive capabilities such as computer vision and natural language processing.

“Customers are looking for help visualizing and this is far better than they ever thought they could get. We definitely see a future in this,” says Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs.

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In the two pilot stores where the HoloLens has been live since March, Nel says customers are “shocked” at “how quickly they can build something that they actually like.” Lowe’s is also using technology and analytics to build on a behavior that frequently occurs at their stores: People bringing in Pinterest boards to convey their personal style. But the retailer realized they needed to take it a step further.

“Usually, customers have to rely on swatches and samples, but the way a color looks on a swatch may be different from how it will look painted all over your kitchen,” Nel says. “That fear of how it’s going to look sometimes keeps customers from making changes to their home and making the improvements they want.”

“Lowe’s helps people love where they live, and solutions like this help make that possible. This takes the uncertainty out of the home renovation process. With these visual cues, we can really get down to what a customer really wants and integrate those boards into a more intuitive experience. You can build it using the HoloLens, and another person wearing another HoloLens can watch it and build it with you. This collaborative process takes a conversation that used to last months and makes it only minutes.”

The success of the first phase in two pilot stores has quickly evolved to this second phase, which expands and enhances the experience to a total of five stores in the coming months. But the journey to this project began years ago.

“We’ve been working on this path for almost five years now,” says Nel. His Innovation Labs enlist science fiction writers who help them come up with creative solutions. “We’re not a tech company at heart, we’re a home improvement company. But what my team does is develop narrative-driven innovation, turning people and tech trends into a story. And then we turn those short stories into reality. We see technology and how it changes the way people act and interact.”

When a Lowe’s customer looks through the HoloLens, they’re able to not only see options for tiles, cabinetry, appliances and more – but also get prices to make their decisions easier.
When a Lowe’s customer looks through the HoloLens, they’re able to not only see options for tiles, cabinetry, appliances and more – but also get prices to make their decisions easier. (Photo courtesy of Lowe’s.)

He says the characters in that first story were wearing something “very similar” to the HoloLens as they redesigned their kitchen.

“At that time, no one was talking about virtual, augmented or mixed reality, especially not in an enterprise type setting,” Nel says. “But we as a company realized that if that’s the future, we needed to start understanding and developing with whatever tech was available to make that happen. So when HoloLens came out, we were excited. Envisioning tools and mixed reality is the future. It’s a huge deal. This next phase is so exciting with the cognitive artificial intelligence piece, because we’ve never had that.”

What they had only dreamed of could actually happen in the real world.

“If you go back to the original story, it’s about true mixed reality,” Nel says. “And we know Microsoft builds enterprise solutions. We’re investing the most valuable thing we have: our time, and our focus. It makes us feel so much more comfortable knowing Microsoft has such a long and deep history with other companies. We don’t know exactly where this is going, but we know generally how we’re going to get there. Having a partner like Microsoft gives us confidence it’s going to work.”

Top photo: A customer at one of Lowe’s stores with the HoloLens pilot program looks at renovation choices in a test kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Lowe’s.)