Technological prophets have been predicting the emergence of virtual reality for decades. Progress towards truly immersive virtual reality may have been slower than expected, but the world is now on the brink of a virtual revolution.
With the launch of products like HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift, powerful VR headsets will soon be common in homes across the world, while Google Cardboard has shown that VR can complement smart-phone technology.
Added together, these new technologies are opening up huge new possibilities for everyday life.
Some of the most exciting potential for virtual reality is in retail:
The format of the traditional store hasn't changed much in 100 years, even with the rise of eCommerce. However, with household VR becoming more feasible, this is changing fast. Here are some of the ways that VR will change retail forever.
A Brave New World of Brand Engagement
VR technology holds huge potential for brand engagement. Some firms anticipate being able to offer entire department stores with virtual fitting rooms.
Customers entering these virtual stores will be able to interact with virtual sales representatives, who will then guide them around the product ranges on offer and make suitable recommendations.
In fact, some firms like the hardware retailer Lowe's have already fitted virtual showrooms.
In their virtual store, customers can try out interior designs until they find the right materials and a color scheme to suit their tastes. It's easy to envisage this technique being extended to retailers in areas like fashion, gardening or food.
Imagine seeing expert chefs cook recipes with ingredients available at a VR grocery store, or designing a flower garden from scratch.
Making Purchasing Quicker and Easier Than Ever
Inside VR stores, customers will almost certainly be able to make purchases simply by looking at items.
Eye-tracking technology has already been developed, and will soon be rolled out for virtual stores, allowing customers to select and buy using just their eyes.
By focusing on a particular item, store visitors will be able to call up information or manipulate it to view it from different angles.
For example, shoes could be rotated in three dimensions and then slipped onto the feet of a virtual mannequin, giving an accurate impression of how they would look on the purchaser.
Enabling A Personalized Retail Experience
When users log into virtual stores, retailers will be able to create a store that suits their own individual tastes.
For example Sixsense’s vRetail, which enhances ecommerce through VR, “can provide valuable analytics & metrics for retailers to understand how consumers interact with products and to ultimately deliver a better more effective buying experience.”
Turning Gaming Into Profits
Gamification will also be used to promote brands in the VR space.
As VR technology matures, creating immersive worlds will be cheap and relatively simple.
Hoping that customers will reward their efforts with a sale, brands will compete to offer exciting virtual experiences:
From rollercoaster rides and high-speed chases to rocket launches, the possibilities are endless.
For example, since early 2016, Qantas has provided VR experiences on select flights and at their terminals. Offering options like their Great Barrier Reef experience:
And a part of the Marriot’s Travel Brilliantly campaign offered virtual travel experiences a popular shopping locations:
Improving Customer Support
Virtual reality will also revolutionize customer support.
At the moment, firms tend to rely on phone lines, social media or overworked store clerks to support customers, often with unsatisfying results for both parties.
In a VR store, virtual clerks will be able to assist with any queries, and they could either be avatars of human clerks, or automated bots.
Customers will also be able to call up information about any products, including suggestions about how to use them, helping to make selecting purchases much easier.
If they have any issues after purchasing, they will be able to virtually meet with a company representative who can lead them through installation or assembly processes.
Innovative Training Solutions
VR won't just help customers. It will also change the way retail staff are trained.
In complex firms, there could be thousands of clerks and administrative staff. With virtual training academies, all of these staff members can be brought together in the same space.
Role-specific courses could be provided for each individual and all staff members could take part in virtual team-building exercises.
Will Virtual Reality have the impact that today's visionaries expect?
What's certain is that new technologies like Oculus Rift will be used to sell product.
When the price of headsets drops a little more, companies with the foresight to invest in virtual stores will have a massive advantage.
It may not happen overnight, but VR will change the way we shop and sell for good.