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David Kepron

Brain Food: Rabbit Holes and Yellow Brick Roads

Peering through a looking glass at AR and VR in making brand experiences




As our relationship with technology evolves, we’ll begin to witness the combining of reality and virtual worlds becoming more cemented in our everyday lives. Physical and virtual spheres will blend into a seamless net of physical and digital environments, media creations and online interactions. What is real and what is digitally manufactured will intertwine, influencing our brain’s architecture, as well as that of the physical environments in which we shop.

A truly liberating fact of digitally manufactured realities is that they don’t have to operate in a world where the rules of physics apply. User-defined digital environments are capable of becoming “better than real.” I can’t fly, but in my digital world, I might be able to possess superhuman abilities that overcome my real-world limitations. Coming back to reality from a journey in virtual space may be a difficult transition for some when they are confronted with Newton’s laws, however.

As we are able to create better-than-real digital experiences, customers’ preferences for things that exercise their brains and push the limits of the laws of nature will be in direct competition with real-world design. A digital world can also have the ability to be more emotionally charged because it can expose us to situations that would not occur in our daily lives. It can be exceptionally appealing and even more satisfying when you consider that a virtual experience can allow us to do things that we normally couldn’t or solve a problem that in every day life seems confounding. Furthermore, digital experiences can be crafted to be a perfect fit for the individual shopper, rather than one in which the individual needs to accommodate a larger cohort. Customer experiences “made for me” can be very alluring.

This should be seen as a call to action for designers of shopping places, as well as for the retailers and brands they serve. If an immersive digital shopping experience that is user-created is more captivating than the real in-store experience, then the need for relevant design will be even more important. We will need to start enhancing our real, physical experiences in order for them to remain compelling and relevant. Otherwise, virtual constructions will prevail as the preferred form of experience, and the embodied world will seem mundane.

Far from being marginalized as part of the store-making process, the brand experience designer will become increasingly pressured to play a vital role in crafting customer experience that rivals virtual shopping worlds where anything can happen.

Retailers like Zara have, for some time, been able to get products from the runway to the store in a couple of weeks. The digital world trumps that time frame, allowing narratives to be determined based on user preferences and decisions that are made in the moment while an experience unfolds. Fully interactive adaptive environments might also likely be able to change in real-time to adapt to the customer’s needs. The challenge here is that changing physical architecture is complicated and requires heavy machinery. Changing “digitecture,” however, can happen from a device in the palm of a shopper’s hand, with a swipe or two of the thumb across its glass interface.


Ubiquitous computing will find computers embedded into our real world environments as opposed to virtual reality finding us embedded in a virtual environment. Being fully immersed in a VR world still messes with most people’s vestibular system, making long-term immersion in digital space a problem. In the best-case scenario, we will see not an “either/or” – real versus virtual – way of living, but one in which technologies support and augment real living.

In the short term, we will move to having blended realities, like digital/virtual overlays, in our real-life environments. We are doing it now with augmented reality applications like “ARKIt,” an iOS application that allows your iPhone or iPad to peer through the ”looking glass” of the screen to views of an augmented environment packed with interactive digital content.

While these applications are novel and engage shoppers in rethinking how they can access products and services, they still stand outside full-embodied immersion in the experiences. The smartphone or tablet acts as an interface through which the shopper sees content – at arm’s length. Even though visual stimuli are a key component to memorable experiences, fully embodied interaction is more profound.

In the 1890s, the development of plate glass rapidly changed the retail landscape. Store windows which had, until then, limited the display of products due to their diminutive size, were being replaced with large plates of glass, allowing unobstructed views into store interiors. Window dressing, as it was known then, was about to take a giant leap forward as both an art form, as well as an occupation. The development of plate glass allowed the retail world to engage shoppers with a whole new approach to product presentation, and the store window became a selling stage. The continuing development and broad use of augmented and virtual reality applications is giving the retail world the same opportunity to change the paradigm for how people may engage in shopping environments.

The idea that customers can shop both through their mobile devices and in store is being enhanced by the fact that they can now point tablets and smartphones at objects and/or places around them and see a whole new world of opportunity in front of them.

In whichever format, we are beginning to see more augmented reality applications. What is clear is that we are moving away from strictly interacting with AR content through a single form of interface, the smartphone or tablet that is held in your hands. We will continue to create blended realities where information in the form of 3D visualizations will be displayed on the world around us. Eventually, digital visualizations will shake free of the confines of the screen and will be projected everywhere for shoppers to “see” through in ways other than the mobile phone.


I have always felt that immersing guests in branded experiences should be like Alice tumbling down a rabbit hole or Dorothy being swept off to some alternate reality. Great brand experience should activate the creative mind; take hold of our imagination and allow us to play in the making of meaningful stories where we play one of the leading roles. Empowered with our digital devices, we are going to have to watch where we step while we follow golden paths that lead to magical encounters.

David Kepron is Vice President – Global Design Strategies with Marriott International. His focus is on the creation of compelling customer experiences within a unique group of Marriott brands called the “Lifestyle Collection,” including Autograph, Renaissance and Moxy hotels. As a frequently requested speaker to retailers, hoteliers and design professionals nationally and internationally, David shares his expertise on subjects ranging from consumer behaviors and trends, brain science and buying behavior, store design and visual merchandising as well as creativity and innovation. David is also author of “Retail (r)Evolution: Why Creating Right-Brain Stores will Shape the Future of Shopping in a Digitally Driven World,” published by ST Media Group Intl. and available online from ST Books. @davidkepron;



MasterClass: ‘Re-Sparkling’ Retail: Using Store Design to Build Trust, Faith and Brand Loyalty

HOW CAN WE EMPOWER and inspire senior leaders to see design as an investment for future retail growth? This session, led by retail design expert Ian Johnston from Quinine Design, explores how physical stores remain unmatched in the ability to build trust, faith, and loyalty with your customers, ultimately driving shareholder value.

Presented by:
Ian Johnston
Founder and Creative Director, Quinine Design

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