This article is part of CMO.com’s November series about commerce and consumerism. Click here for more.
Virtual reality (VR) is growing rapidly outside of its traditional heartland of entertainment and education and forming an exciting presence in retail. It’s a phenomenon that is referred to as virtual, or v-commerce.
And there is a growing need for it online, as customers demand more immersive and engaging experience of products with the opportunity to try before they buy—without going near a physical shop.
Why not virtually sit in the front row of a Milan fashion show and watch the dress you’re considering buying paraded on the catwalk, or climb into a tent in an Alaskan wilderness, lie inside, and see if you think it’s big enough, before heading to the nearby river and practising casting on that new fly rod you think might be just right for you.
This is not sci-fi—all of this will soon be possible in virtual worlds, created for you by brands that will allow you to immerse yourself and shop from the comfort of your home.
From Augmented To Virtual
VR is the natural successor to augmented reality (AR) in retail. AR has been with us for some time. It does not recreate your world, but overlays text, images, and graphics on top of your real-world surroundings. Ikea has used this to great effect to allow you to see exactly what that new sofa you’re considering buying would look like in your living room, by overlaying the image of the sofa on your real-time camera feed.
This technology has given AR a very wide application in retail. But fully fledged immersive VR in retail is relatively new.
eBay launched the world’s first virtual department store last year, an impressive feat of engineering cleverly promoted by offering thousands of customers free VR headsets called “shopticals.” As good as this virtual department store was, it lacked any of the real-world cues that immersive VR needs. It resembled more the white space simulation that Neo found himself in soon after swallowing the red pill in the “Matrix” film.
Alibaba has launched a much more real and immersive VR shopping experience in China. You get to choose which city you want to shop in. Click your virtual heels and, suddenly, you’re not in Kansas anymore, you’re transported into the back of a Pink Cadillac alongside a charismatic driver travelling through Times Square on your way to Macy’s department store. Once inside, you can “walk” through a real-world simulation of the store and shop to your heart’s content.
Simply look at the object you’re interested in, and you can bring it up, and study it in glorious 3D, and decide if you want to buy it. Developments in hands-free voice activation mean that you don’t need to leave this immersion into this virtual store to make your choice and complete the payment.
It all makes the trek down the A2 in the people carrier to Bluewater feel positively dreary.
Not Quite There Yet
The reality though of this virtual reality is that it’s not perfect yet. The Alibaba experience is a bit clunky, and the number of products available to buy is limited. However, technology moves at a pace, and VR is developing rapidly.
Where there is a virtual human-computer interaction, there is also the need for touch and tactile feedback to further enhance the experience.
The images are more fluid, volumetric video technology brings ever more realistic sense of texture and weight, and sound is now directional and reflects real-world acoustics. Haptics is bringing that elusive sense of touch and feel much closer. Headsets are becoming smaller, lighter, and more wearable.
So the tech will improve, and we will be able to immerse ourselves in simulated realities that are far more compelling than even a real-world shopping experience.
A Glimpse Into Retail Future
The rise of AI will develop deep learning algorithms to power insights into retail that will drive exactly what context these products will virtually exist within. Your virtual department store will have products personalised just for you.
Brands will be able to create virtual brand worlds that facilitate brand storytelling in a way never possible before.
Ted Baker recently built an advertising campaign that was shot on a 360-degree set, allowing you to “Meet the Bakers” and experience this idiosyncratic brand and its merchandise in its very own Tim Burtonesque virtual reality.
Experiencing the brand in a tactile, sensory environment is very powerful and is already changing what we consider when we think of an advertising campaign.
This virtual content will become an essential ingredient in any integrated campaign, possibly supplanting 2D-screen content. Here you could experience the product in context, touch it, and feel it, and if you really liked it, buy it straight out of the story. Why would you watch an ad if you could live it instead?