Mobile and e-commerce technologies have already transformed the retail industry from its store-centric approach to the ability to connect with shoppers anytime, anywhere. As we look ahead to the technologies that will bring the next wave of possibilities for retail, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing are sure to have a huge impact. But the technology I think will most start to come into its own in 2016 is virtual reality.
VR today is where smartphones were before the release of the iPhone in 2007. We just saw the release of Oculus Rift, and yet to come this year are releases of Sony’s PlayStation VR (a.k.a. Project Morpheus) and HTC’s Vive. Also, with its $1.42 billion of funding, start-up Magic Leap is about to create millions of augmented reality devices. While gamers are tipped to be the earliest adopters of VR, I believe immersive video (see YouTube’s 360Video channel) will drive widespread consumer interest in VR. Retail will play a part in this.
Clicks and Bricks Merge, Set the Stage
Clearly, the physical and online worlds of retail are merging. We saw this with Amazon opening its first physical store and smaller online retailers such as Modcloth doing the same. Even Nordstrom features in-store displays with “top-pinned” items on Pinterest. In addition, physical retailers are investing heavily in e-commerce to create a seamless experience between channels. The largest was Walmart’s recent commitment to put $2 billion into e-commerce during the next two years. The integration of the online and offline worlds set the perfect stage for the entrance of VR.
Virtual Gets Real for Retail
2016 will be the year that retailers begin to experiment with virtual reality as the next major platform for e-commerce. However, the scale needed to produce VR-optimized e-commerce sites is going to take a lot of work and it won’t happen in a year. Many e-commerce businesses are just now creating mobile-optimized versions of their websites, even though smartphones were introduced nine years ago. But we will see innovators move in this direction and consumers will have opportunities to tinker with new experiences.
Luxury boutique retailer The Line is already experimenting with the Samsung Gear VR headset. Shoppers can currently tour the brand’s Manhattan store, The Apartment, using the 3D video technology – even if they are halfway around the world. Similarly, VR developers Sixense and marketing agency SapientNitro recently showed Reuters a demo of a consumer virtually browsing shoes from a display, “picking them up” and trying them on an avatar, and making a purchase. The ultimate goal is for these platforms to learn a shopper’s preferences so the experience becomes more personalized with each visit. In addition, in select stores around the world, shoppers can watch Tommy Hilfiger’s fall 2015 catwalk show with a Samsung Gear VR headset – “a 360-degree, three-dimensional version of the runway as though they’re sitting in the front row.”
Automotive showrooms are also taking early steps into VR. Audi created Audi City, the world’s first fully digital car showroom, where car shoppers can virtually tour the car’s features with an Audi designer via a Samsung Gear VR headset. Volvo teamed up with Microsoft’s HoloLens systems to create a VR showroom…with no actual cars. In this case, prospective buyers wear digital goggles, which display cars like they’re holograms, and walk around virtual images of the car and its features.
VR, The Vision
VR will transform how we shop, play and live. Imagine having accurate 3D models of yourself and those you shop for, then watching images of yourself walking running, surfing, skiing and golfing while wearing that apparel – all in virtual reality. Imagine buying a bike for your son, but first being able to watch him (or his 3D avatar) ride it down your street to get an accurate picture of sizing, color, style, etc. Imagine buying a car, but first being able to see your family and dog getting in and out of it in your driveway.
Any scene you see in an ad may be recreated in VR to totally transform and personalize the shopping experience. As physical and virtual worlds further blend through VR, shoppers will experience a brand’s products in a way that is more engaging than ever before.
Retailers can take small steps now before creating these full VR experiences. Trying out VR headsets, 360° cameras, immersive video and other new technologies can help them imagine what the shopping experience could be like for customers.
My experience with VR has convinced me that it will become a huge platform; and when it does, people will want to shop on it.
Ryan is Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder of SLI Systems, which provides online retailers with SaaS-based e-commerce acceleration solutions.
This article was written by Current Accounts from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.