The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Neha Singh, Founder and CEO of Obsess.
Below is an excerpt of the interview with Singh, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about you and your background?
I’m the founder and CEO of Obsess. My background is in engineering and fashion. I got my graduate degree in Computer Science from MIT, and then I was a software engineer and tech lead at Google for five years. I was on the team that built the first dashboard homepage for Google AdWords and then on Google News.
While I was [at Google] I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer because I love fashion, so I started taking fashion design classes on the side. I realized after a couple of semesters that I was really bad at drawing. So I decided to stick to the tech side of fashion and joined a luxury e-commerce startup.
After that I was the Head of Product at Vogue, and, as I love fashion, it was a dream job for me. I worked on all their digital properties, with many luxury brands who were advertisers in the magazine, to create interactive digital experiences for them. I realized how much these brands were struggling with their online experience, especially on mobile. Because on mobile, their entire brand gets reduced to four to six thumbnails on a page.
It was around this time that I experienced the Oculus headset for the first time. As soon as I put it on, my first thought was ‘this is how I want to shop’. I love fashion; I love shopping, but I used to hate online shopping. I don’t always have time to go to stores, and so I want the experience of going to a store without having to go to a store. Virtual reality [provided that experience]. I left Vogue to start Obsess.
2) Tell us a bit about Obsess.
Obsess is an Experiential E-commerce platform. Our mission is to reinvent the online shopping interface to move away from the grid-of-thumbnails on a white background. And convert it to an immersive experience that is highly interactive, branded and engaging.
We believe the future of online shopping will encompass much more than the search-filter-transaction flow that today’s e-commerce sites are built on. Because a lot of discovery today happens at retail stores and happens on Instagram, but doesn’t happen on brands’ or retailers’ websites. We are turning e-commerce into an experience through 3D Virtual Stores. We have developed proprietary patent-pending technology that enables us to render high-quality 3D graphics on the web at a high resolution and fast performance. Brands can use that to create any type of virtual experience they want, that customers can browse and discover products and really have an engaging and fun time.
In the early days of the company, we built for VR headsets. We had our first shopping experiences on Google Daydream and on Samsung Gear VR. What we realized at that time was that it was too early for headsets, as the consumer adoption was quite low.
We moved to a completely web-based platform where you don’t need a headset to experience it. It is really optimized for mobile and you don’t even have to download an app. We really started seeing traction once we launched that. We realized you have to make this technology very accessible for consumers in a way that is just as easy as clicking a link on Instagram, or clicking a link from your email, or from a website, and then it launches them into the virtual experience.
We have grown a lot since then. Today we have launched over a 100 virtual stores. We work with large global brands and retailers. It’s not specific to fashion or beauty, but we also work with verticals ranging from toys to appliances and CPG to Media & Entertainment. Any brand can make a better experience for their consumers digitally using our platform.
3) What would you say about the industry, how has it changed?
I think the industry has become much more realistic. It has started focusing on real use cases that are actually used by consumers and driving revenue. Hardware is now becoming more usable and consumer adoption is increasing.
4) What has your experience been like building your business?
The problem that [Obsess is] solving and the product that we are building is targeted mostly to women.
In a very general, high-level way, men and women shop differently. Women are ‘hedonic’ shoppers, which means they like to browse, experience and get inspired. For them, shopping is an entertainment activity and what you buy is sort of a byproduct of that. Men are ‘directed’ shoppers who want to get in and out. The e-commerce grid interface was built for men because it’s about search and transaction. Women are the majority spenders in shopping and yet the e-commerce experience was not built for them. I think there is a huge untapped opportunity in online to capture how women shop.
5) What advice would you have for high school students or people who are looking into this industry in terms of plotting out their future steps?
I think it’s such an exciting time, because finally, XR technology is more accessible to more people. I think experimenting, learning and building things on your own is really important. Even for me, when I left Vogue and I started the company, I didn’t know how to do 3D development or VR development. I had only done web development, which was just normal websites and 3D development is very different.
Building things yourself gives you a fundamental understanding of how it works and just all the possibilities. Finally, I think the currency of the future will be creativity–because so much is possible to do with XR technology, the ideas and visuals and experiences that captivate people will ultimately come down to the creativity of the creators.
6) What are the XR skills you are looking for at your company?
For us in terms of talent, the two XR-specific skillsets we are looking for and that are difficult to find are 3D designers and 3D engineers. Our customers include luxury brands and while they are now open to creating these fantastical environments, they still want them to look very high quality.
[We need individuals who understand] architectural visualization and who understand environment design from gaming. We also need web 3D development skills. If people studied these skills, I think they will have lots of opportunities in the future.
7) Is there anything else you want to share on what the industry needs to grow?
We’re at the point where headsets no longer have to be plugged into your laptops and you don’t have to put your phone into it, so that’s great. I think the company that creates a really sleek and fashionable device for people to wear—they will be the winner. A lot will depend on the design of the device itself. In my mind, that’s what will really kickstart the mass adoption: when it becomes something cool to wear.
8) What is your secret to being on the cutting edge?
We’re still at the tip of the iceberg. I started [Obsess because] I want to do this beyond the fact that it’s a better shopping experience. For me, it is for designers and the creative people behind these brands. Today’s digital format does them a disservice because it doesn’t represent all the creativity that goes into creating a collection.
It’s hard to build the ‘next thing’. It’s not easy to drive adoption of the ‘next thing’. But we’ll keep going until it fully becomes the ‘current thing’!