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How virtual and augmented reality might change the way we shop

Both virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to mark the next biggest retail evolution since online shopping.

With the exception of faster loading times (courtesy of faster internet) and higher-resolution assets, online shopping hasn’t changed a whole lot since its inception in the 1990s.

That’s changing, though, with the rise of both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technologies.

One of the bigger criticisms of online shopping is users are required to visualise the entirety of a product based on select images, instead of being able to see what that same product is really like in a brick-and-mortar store.

Virtual reality and augmented reality have the potential to change that. 

VR shopping today

Even though VR is relatively new – it only really released in mainstream forms last year – and predominantly gaming-centric at this stage, the immersive digital tech is already being used to promote online shopping experiences.

For instance, Chinese online retailer Alibaba implemented a VR-driven connected shopping experience late last year.

An hour after it launched, more than 30,000 people had tried it.

The VR experience uses a smartphone app and starts in a virtual home, where everything is controlled by moving your head and staring at items of interest.

Previously-entered address and payment details streamline the checkout process and keep users in the virtual shopping world.

You stare at a store (represented as a poster in the virtual home) to visit its digital recreation, and then you focus on individual items to see specific product details and purchasing options.

When purchased, the item is delivered a few days later, but the service is only currently available in China.

Home-furnishings distributor IKEA created a free download for the HTC Vive VR headset via the Steam gaming digital distribution network.

The IKEA VR Experience lets users walk through a virtual kitchen, interacting with specific items, changing material finishes, and even experiencing the space from a child’s height.

Fashion retailers Tommy Hilfiger and Dior recently let shoppers use in-store VR to see 360-degree runway shows and behind-the-scenes footage.

Car manufacturer Audi uses VR to supplement the showroom experience if a particular car model or exact features/colours are unavailable on the showroom floor.

The room-scale VR showroom offers an interior and exterior experience for different Audi cars and features.

On a similar note, the Volvo Reality VR app takes users on an automated test drive of its XC90 car where you can simultaneously appraise the car’s interior and the beautiful countryside without worrying about driving off the road.

Locally, VR shopping been used in limited capacities, such as the eBay “shoptacles” that were Google Cardboard-style VR boxes (that house compatible smartphones).

This “Virtual Reality Department Store” consists of a blank background with floating 3D product categories and then, once selected with your gaze, specific products.

The more you use the eBay VR experience, the more personalised the shopping selections become.

VR shopping tomorrow

Investment group Goldman Sachs has VR and AR retail pegged at being worth $1.6 billion by 2025.

IKEA is predicting that “in five to ten years, [VR] will be an integrated part of people’s lives”.

This makes sense if you believe Marianna Alshina, co-founder of 3D scanning company Cappasity, who claims there’s a 5 per cent to 40 per cent increase in online conversion (sales) rates that have highly detailed 3D imagery, particularly for shoes and clothes.

With the emphasis on personalised algorithms for connected devices these days, as seen in the eBay Australia VR initiative, the idea is to personalise shopping selections to make adaptive cross or up-selling purchasing recommendations in the VR shopping space.

In the words of Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit (creator of VR content for retailers), “Interactivity leads to immersion, and that immersion leads to conversion.”

AR shopping

Where virtual reality currently allows for the digital recreation of real spaces or the creation of floating online shopping spaces, augmented reality has the potential to show what possible purchases could look like, either on your person or in your home.

For instance, Zugara’s Virtual Dressing Room uses large virtual changing rooms in retail stores, or regular computer webcams and Microsoft Kinect units at home, to superimpose clothes onto users so they can see what a potential clothing selection might look like on them.

One of the reported challenges of AR virtual changing rooms, though, is that adjusting clothing sizes to match the scale of the user can sometimes prove tricky and may make the clothes appear to be ill-fitting.

Another recent app converted Apple smartphones into a virtual mirror that, when placed over their wrist, would show an AR view of what it would look like to wear an Apple Watch (in different configurations).

There have been similar applications of AR tech to showcase what jewellery or makeup might look like on a shopper without having to physically wear or apply the products.

Augmented reality can also be used for larger purchasers, such as furniture, and digitally placed in your home.

Cimagine Media offers a current AR technology that uses a smartphone or tablet app to scan a room, then digitally superimpose particular products (including furniture) in that real-world space by viewing it through the smartphone or tablet’s screen.

Future technologies may remove the need for a smartphone or tablet screen and allow shoppers to place them dynamically in their own homes.

In-development AR technologies like Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens superimpose user-specific holograms (via VR-like headset) atop real-world spaces.

Down the track, this means that AR users could foreseeably select a new couch, TV unit or fridge by way of a superimposed, life-size digital model of the furniture or appliance item.

The superimposed model can then be moved and rotated to fit the space as required.

The current uses of VR and AR tech are only scratching the surface of the potential for virtual and augmented online shopping experiences in the not-so-distant future.

Shopping isn't the only thing going with this new tech trend. Check out these unexpected ways people are using VR and AR.

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