Major UK deal in pipeline for holographic innovators

Closure of previous business led to creation of ‘holo-guides’

VBC founder Alan Dowling: “Some did say it [the hologram] was weird, some people did run, but by and large, they thought it was great.”

VBC founder Alan Dowling: “Some did say it [the hologram] was weird, some people did run, but by and large, they thought it was great.”

 

The roots of VBC’s story began in 2011 when founder Alan Dowling’s signage business shut its doors. In the aftermath, he signed up for a Back to Work enterprise allowance, before snapping up a place in the Midlands and West Enterprise Programme.

Asked to focus on starting businesses with export potential, Dowling – who had worked extensively with the retail sector in his last business – hit upon the concept of in-store holographic guides for that market

A CORD grant from Enterprise Ireland followed, allowing him to build a small team of four which could continue to refine the product.

“Slowly we brought in smaller investors – €10,000 here, €20,000 there – which allowed us to buy a bit more hardware and prove the idea would work in principle,” he says.

Having had to let go 13 employees when his previous business closed down, Dowling now hopes VBC will bring 20-plus high quality positions to Mayo over the coming two years.

“Retailers are trying to decrease costs while, at the same time, increase profit,” says Dowling, “and they’re doing this through measures like self-service checkouts. But maintaining a level of customer experience successfully with that type of technology isn’t really possible. And with less and less human interaction, people can even feel slightly second rate to online customers.”

The digital signage product created by VBC (or Visual Brand Communication to give their full name) can help out though.

“Rather than being boxed-shaped, our products are human-shaped,” Dowling says.

“It’s difficult as it’s something new,” he adds, “but it would be like a cardboard cut-out of a person, except it’s a video of a real person – a hologram which can interact and engage with you in the way a normal person would.”

Using actors rather than animation to avoid the “eerie, humanoid” feel of speaking with a computer-generated image, VBC creates “massive amounts of video with every different type of response” recorded in order to best serve those who approach the holograms.

Using software developed for the security industry, the back-end systems behind the hologram can detect if it’s talking to a man or woman of a particular age and tailor responses or suggestions to that individual.

Trialled in Dublin Airport’s Terminal 1 last September for 30 days, it was used by over 4,000 people.

“Some did say it was weird, some people did run,” laughs Dowling, “but by and large, they thought it was great.

“What we’re doing for an airport situation for instance is building a dictionary which is airport-specific, so, long-term, the holographic product is answering questions like where the gate, ATM or bathroom is, and then doing that in different languages.”

A British retail chain is currently looking to deploy the system in 200 stores which will see an “ambassador” from each outlet filmed answering questions before turning those images into a hologram – all aimed at keeping the “identity” of the store intact.

“The script from the retailer is very focused.” explains Dowling. “They know their customers and know exactly what questions they have,” adding that specific information regarding promotions or new products can be added later.

The company has also built a relationship with Toshiba over the past year, as it was looking for a product that “added something different” to the electronic point of sale (EPoS) systems it supplies. In fact, Toshiba will now install, maintain and support the 200 units being bought by the un-named UK retailer Dowling spoke about earlier.

The tech giants will also be able to install the product in stores where it has existing contracts while another element of the burgeoning partnership will see Toshiba install, maintain and support the product in “every other European country starting in Holland” later this year.

With VBC soon set to complete the task of gaining €400,000 in investment from Enterprise Ireland and private equity investors, its ‘holo-guides’ – basic versions of which can also be built into store shelves using smaller holographic images that can walk along the shelf – will make their debut in stores in July.

Letting his mind wander towards future holographic possibilities Dowling likes the idea of a “Borrower”-sized character beamed onto restaurant tables to “talk about the daily specials”.

However, as soon as he says this, Dowling adds that, for the minute, the focus is “almost to try and cap ideas, instead of continually developing. We’ll be focusing on launching the first solutions and go from there”.

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