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What can VR do for retailers?

Virtual Reality has been a running theme in the news recently, from Facebook’s Oculus Rift VR headset selling out its first production batch in record time, Google creating a new VR division and VR theme parks and rides launching in the UK and the US.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence suggesting VR will become mainstream within a few years. The question is, how will this impact retailers? Will it become part of the shopping experience or simply a new product to sell?

If the sales of Oculus Rift are any indication, product appetite is certainly there. The name Oculus Rift is automatically associated with VR, making it a huge success in terms of brand recognition. For retailer GAME, the sell-out was a welcome boost to their sales. Chief executive Martyn Gibbs issued a profit warning just days before Christmas, saying he anticipated that “new technology releases this year, in particular the launch of Virtual Reality devices, will lead to increased consumer interest which will benefit Game as customers seek expert advice and specialist service." If the recent sales are anything to go by, he could be correct.

Fans not only have Oculus Rift to be excited about but also the soon to be released HTC Vive, both of which look to capture the less profitable PC market. Apart from Oculus Rift which is in partnership with xBox, current consoles won’t be able to support the new technology, which once again opens up the retail sector.

While it is true that consumers need new technology to dig their teeth into, relying on them can be a risky strategy for a retailer. In this instance, it seems that GAME needs to make VR work for them as an affordable solution, ideally running off the industry’s most profitable console the PS4, but rumours are abound of the forthcoming PlayStation VR being held back only because there are not enough games to support it.

VR is already being used across other sectors to provide consumers with a more interactive, emotive and convenient experience. Chris Milk’s VR film Clouds Over Sidra was shown at Sundance a year ago. Commissioned by the UN, it shows conditions in a Jordanian refugee camp populated with Syrians and emotively depicted what it was like to be there, to give viewers empathy for the plight of others, virtual reality can pull at your heart strings. Many car companies have used VR to extend configurators and test drives to good effect, and Ogilvy has used it to give doctors empathy for their patients’ conditions such as what it is like to have low blood sugar.

The death of high street giants and Christmas shoppers moving online signalled a decline in people visiting stores and suddenly, retailers’ efforts on store arrangement and such suddenly proved useless, instead being replaced by web design and e-commerce. Virtual Reality provides the opportunity to bring back the ‘day at the mall’ shopping experience, bringing back the ‘know how’ that retailers have perfected over a century. It also bridges the gap between e-commerce and tangibility, giving consumers the chance to experience what they are about to buy better than ever before.

What most people question though is will it be up to it? It’s hard to imagine how Virtual Reality will allow someone to feel like they’re wearing an item of clothing. Cloth can be modelled to fall in a certain way but elements such as fit and comfort and elasticity of cloth are hard to model. One of the forerunners in vRetail is Sixense which has created the hardware to allow physical immersion in the virtual space. While its demos include the ability to handle virtual modes of shoes, see videos of clothing being worn and test fly drones, it seems merely a small first step towards the possibilities of virtual retail.

How product placement and virtual objects apply in the world of VR will also relate to retail. Already companies like Mirriad have the ability to dynamically reskin billboards in the background of TV shows to make them cater to local markets. These same options will no doubt be extended to retail, with different items being shown inside virtual experiences based on where you are in the world.

On the other side of the street from Virtual Reality headsets are Augmented Reality headsets such as the Microsoft Hololens, which adds and overlays content on your surroundings as you go about your normal day. Given how people wearing the relatively discreet Google Glass got lambasted, it might be a while before the headsets like Hololens become socially acceptable for everyday public use, but there is certainly less of a jump; to have objects (be they ad banners, product details or attacking aliens) superimposed on your real world surroundings is more magical and inclusive than being transported to somewhere else entirely as you are when using a VR headset.

Whilst the real future for making VR an everyman's device may seem a little while off, the demand for the technology from both the early adopter consumers and the retailers themselves is certainly here. Knowing how to optimise the devices for maximum impact is yet to be seen.

Mark Caswell-Daniels, lead creative technologist at SapientNitro

Image source: Shutterstock/Wayne0216