Shop Like Someone is Looking: A Look at What VR Could Do for Retail

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While meandering around an industry event, I came across an exhibit for “360 VR chat” and got in line. It all seemed innocuous enough with the typical vendor set up of a few cafe tables, smiley sales people and glossy one pagers … then things got weird.

When I donned the head-set and sat in the leather club chair, I found myself saying “hi” to a young woman kneeling on her futon in a low cut lacy top. I immediately had that “I’ve walked into the wrong room” feeling but hey, I was there to learn, so I stayed and did what any professional would do in this situation. I did a 360 scan of her bedroom and spent an inordinate time looking at her shoe collection instead of her. I asked her where she was (Vegas) and if she worked for the company (nope, hired for the day).

I quickly got the picture. But I also got another picture of what VR commerce could become if done right.  In its purest form, what I experienced was FaceTime on steroids. I felt like I was standing in her bedroom. In its less pure form, what I experienced was an accidental conversation with a probable sex worker in Las Vegas who was hired for the day to talk to a bunch of nerds and hipsters 1,102 air miles away. I am thankful she did not see us. Or do anything besides talk.

I am also thankful that this slightly uncomfortable experience opened my eyes to the possibilities of Virtual Reality Commerce.

Until now, I have been skeptical of how VR could positively impact a retail experience. Perhaps that is because many visions of VR retail are informed by the gaming world where life is consciously hyperbolic and graphic. Even in the porn world where graphics get a little more life-like and you can go “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift /,” virtual reality is just that – not quite reality.

When it comes to shopping, reality, not rendering, is key.

But what if Virtual Reality shopping were more Skype and less Minecraft? What if instead of “rendering” products and stores, we enabled the shopper to roam real aisles and talk to real (fully-clothed) associates in real time? Now we are onto something. The elements of “Personalization,” “Serendipity,” and “Connection,” would all automatically be part of the experience because it would be in the real world, real time, where all of the elements key to shopping happen naturally without algorithms, filters and forms.

When we think of virtual reality as a viewing mechanism of the real world in real time rather than a parallel world, the possibilities broaden. Essentially, we would be in “virtual powered” reality where we are transported to a real place and able to look around and interact with real people. We would feel like we are part of the scenery even though we are not “really” there.  We would become immersed in stores and see other actual real shoppers. It would be infinitely richer than today’s eCommerce experience.

So, what are the limitations? Like digital shopping today, virtual powered reality would still lack the tactile (how does that fabric feel?) and olfactory (how does that candle smell?). But those factors have not really limited the continually growing eCommerce industry to date so they are hardly show stoppers.

The bigger limitation, ironically, has to do with reality itself. While wearing a headset, one is literally disembodied from the rest of one’s physical self. It’s an odd thing to not see, if only peripherally, your hands and torso, while watching something or talking to someone. The “you” in the experience is cut off. It’s all in your head. And that’s an odd way to shop – not to mention play, talk or have sex.

Maybe we will grow accustomed to the disembodiment sensation just as we have to having our phones in our hands at all times. Or maybe headsets will evolve to get ourselves into the picture. Either way, I believe there is a real future for VR in retail. It could even ultimately result in the demise of eCommerce as we know it since being transported to a real live retail environment is more engaging than scrolling through photos of products and clicking an “add to cart” button.

But that’s a way off. By then, we will be getting clipped by delivery drones we didn’t see coming as we stepped out from our driverless cars. But don’t fret. Some things will never change. You’ll still have to confirm you are not a robot before placing an order.

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