Virtual Reality Shopping: Going Back To The Future To Revolutionize Commerce

Virtual Reality Shopping: Going Back To The Future To Revolutionize Commerce

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Note from the editor: Today is October 21st, 2015, the day Marty McFly travels to the future in the 1989 classic Back to the Future II.

As a kid, I like many others, wondered if the future Doc & Marty visited would be the one I'd live in as a man. Some of the movie is humorously wrong, some eerily right, and while you'll no doubt read plenty "what they got right" articles today, this is not one of them. 

Instead, this is about how a technology that was just barely recognized back in 1989 is coming into it's own now, and has many technologists saying "Great Scott!" about it's potential to change the way products are bought and marketed for ever.   

The following is a guest post from Hassan Ud-Deen

How we shop is changing...people no longer solely rely on direct mail and physical retail to purchase goods and necessities, and are becoming increasingly comfortable with buying goods online.

And as smartphones and tablets have become common, sales from desktops have declined. According to Capgemini, mobile now accounts for 40% of all retail sales.

There’s an interesting pattern to be noted here. Mainly how we’re “putting our foots in our mouths” with regards to our oscillating assumptions of technology’s influence on our buying behaviour.

35 years ago, the consensus was: “A home computer? Why would I ever want to buy one of those.” Never mind buying anything online.

8 years ago--like the predictions of a mental asylum patient for the end of the world--people ridiculed the iPhone. Yet, here we stand in 2015 with millions of iPhones sold.

History doesn’t lie.

And it tells us that, just because we can’t currently wrap our heads around a new technology, or understand how it can impact us; that doesn’t mean it isn’t viable or will not be useful in the future.

Now new waves of technology are crawling out of their primordial ooze, and are ready to make their debut as viable additions to the way we shop.

I'm talking about Augmented and Virtual reality.

Store owners will let customers try clothing and accessories in a virtual “store”, place furniture into their customer’s houses within an app on the smartphone, and show people how to assemble and use products step-by-step with “live” customer support.

They’ll let customers flaunt potential purchases to friends, and make their brands more fun, personable and engaging. They’ll crank up the potency of their storytelling, segmented marketing, cross-selling and upselling.

In essence, store owners will soon be bridging the gap between physical and online retail.

Sounds like a crossbreed between a marketer's deepest desires and a tech geek’s saliva-inducing fantasies, right? But it’s not.

Today, top brands like, Lego, Rayban, BMW, North Face and Marriott Hotel are testing the waters with augmented and virtual reality. So before rushing into their futuristic applications, let’s look at how they are currently being used.  

Virtually Furnishing Homes and Helping Make Decisions

When homeware retailer Ikea conducted research on buyers, they found that:

  • 14% of customers have bought wrong sized furniture for their rooms
  • Over 70% say they don’t really know how big their homes are
  • And 33% admit to being confused about measuring up

To help customers battle this “square peg round hole” syndrome, they took advantage of AR technology and merged it with their Ikea Catalogue app.

The app (which is downloadable on smartphones and tablets) allows customers to virtually fit furniture in their homes before ordering. Customers can test up to 90 products and make decisions based on style, size, shape, color and positioning.

To use it, you place the catalog in the space where you’d like to position the furniture. The app then scans the size of the room and the catalog, and scales a 3D representation of the product to the screen.

If the “furniture” needs rotating or adjusting, you adjust the catalog accordingly.

Last year Ikea reported that it has “resulted in 8.5 million downloads, with more than 42 million visits to the digital catalog via the app or online”.

And AR technology related to homeware is already evolving.

Cimagine, a specialist augmented ecommerce company, has released an advanced version of the Ikea Catalog app which no reference points or anchors are needed. It just scans the user’s surroundings and shows the product. 

The app can be integrated into ecommerce and mcommerce product pages with a single line of code. Making it easier for online furniture and homeware retailers to use.

Beautifying Customers Online

According to James Bergenstein of The Science Project “Virtual reality and augmented reality shopping still isn’t to a point where you experience the same sensuality of trying on clothes and seeing how they complement the contours of your body”.

But it’s getting closer.

FaceCake’s software Swivel, is proof:

Customers enter a virtual dressing room. And with a few lazy swipes in front of a screen, they see how different dresses, scarfs, necklaces and accessories look on them.

So how does it work?

A computer/phone camera, or a Microsoft 360 Kinect scans the customer into a chat-box-style video screen. Clothing, jewelry and makeup is then selected on-screen and placed on to the customer’s body. Shoppers can also raise/lower their arms, turn around, and experiment with what fits best.

And by snapping images of their possible new outfits and uploading them to social media, they can get quick feedback from friends and family, making the virtual experience feel closer to the real thing.

Swivel also includes an engine that recommends items to shoppers based on both, their personal preference and behavior in the virtual fitting room.

The software looks at:

  • How long the user spends looking at a specific item
  • What the user shares on social media
  • What the user tries on more than once

This is a nice way for stores to track their customer’s preferences. And increases the chances of product recommendations that shoppers actually like.

Augmented reality is giving a brick-and-mortar advantage to online fashion retailers. And it has only just begun.  

Elevating Efficiency And Diminishing Logistical Time Drains

DHL’s recent pilot program used smart glasses to test “vision picking” in one of their Netherland warehouses.

Pickers were equipped with head mounted displays like Google Glass (which is now being distributed only at workplaces) and the Vuzix M100.

An interactive interface then showed where items belong, and gave pickers real-time graphical information about aisles, product location and quantity.

Image via DHL

The results?

Enhanced staff performance and less errors: The implementation of augmented reality boosted picking efficiency by 25%.

DHL also believes that AR will enhance other areas of business.

“The technology significantly supports our staff and brings exciting value to our customers. However, this is just the first step in our innovation journey as we believe augmented reality will become relevant for even more supply chain areas” says Jan Willem of the DHL supply chain Benelux.

AR and VR Will Enrich Day-to-Day Activities

Augmented and virtual reality will stop being tech novelties.

They’ll be as common as smartphones, tablets and PCs in the next 4-6 years. The following statistics and projections support this theory:

  • According to Digi-capital, the augmented reality market is projected to generate $120 billion dollars in revenue by 2020
  • Statistica forecasts active virtual reality users to reach 171 million in 3 years time
  • 60 million users across smartphones, tablets and smart glasses will use augmented reality apps, says Juniper Research
  • Research from the Digital Marketing Bureau states that over 864 million smartphones have AR technology enabled in them
  • According to CCS insights, hardware shipments of VR devices will increase from 2.2m in 2015 to 20m in 2018

And tools like Google Cardboard are already making the dive into virtual and augmented reality easier.

Google Cardboard allows users to experience virtual reality on their smartphones for only $20-$30. And it’s already stacking up sales...

Last year Google released a post celebrating the shipping of 500,000 units. This year, their app has over 1 million downloads, over 30,000 ratings, and averages 4.2 out of 5 stars.

On a related note, Google owned Youtube has also been experimenting 360° video formats that use a smart phone's accelerometer to detect the phone's position, and let it serve as a window to video world.

Brands like Gatorade and Budweiser have produced content that showcases just how engaging this format can be. 

(Note: These videos are best viewed on mobile, through the Youtube app.)

So, we know AR and VR are growing in popularity, but how exactly will they impact the ecommerce world in the next 5-10 years?

They’ll Inspire Riveting Stories and Energize Customer Experiences

AR and VR transcend mere technological evolution.

They actually penetrate the realm of deeply-rooted psychological and emotional needs that are necessary to motivate a buying decision.

Think about it: If consumers base their buying decisions mainly on feelings and experiences, and direct touch interface devices (like tablets and smartphones) increase psychological ownership, imagine how immersive technologies like AR and VR--that not only involve touch, but push the boundaries of technological interactivity--will springboard the power of stories and emotionally driven selling to unchartered emotionally engaging heights?  

Case in point; for a wailing child, the patching up of bleeding cuts doesn’t sound like a cause for fun, does it? But it can be.

With Band-Aid’s Magic Vision app it can trigger joy, laughter and precious bonding time:    

(AR technology turns pain into pleasure)

Parents place a Muppet band-aid on their kids and scan it. An interactive Muppet character then appears on screen and allows kids to:

  • Snap up photos with Miss Piggy as she struts along the red carpet
  • Swing Kermit the frog while he plays his banjo
  • Shake a giggling Gonzo off the screen

This dulls pain, creates a glee-filled event between parents and kids, and transforms a “meh” product like Band-Aids, into an interactive experience that flips cries into giggles.

AR is also helping the Sunshine Aquarium create colorful experiences from a grey necessity.

The aquarium’s foot traffic was taking a nosedive. Potential customers were being tempted by Tokyo’s immense distractions. To prevent themselves from drowning among the noise, they needed to cut through the clutter and “peacock” their business.  

Their solution?

Use people’s natural attraction to cute animals to overpower distractions and guide them--with street smart AR penguin escorts:

(Feeling lost? No problem, AR penguins will escort you to your destination)

Once near the aquarium, customers download the penguin NAVI app and follow a cute group of on-screen penguins to get their.

This AR escapade transforms boring point-to-point travel into an enjoyable adventure which initially boosted foot traffic by 152% (and still reels in business); despite their being no change in exhibition content.

The above stories are just microcosms of how the ecommerce world will upgrade in interactivity, personality and storytelling ability with AR. When it becomes a popular marketing tool...AR will stimulate interactive story driven experiences that inject a heavy dose of personality into the world of ecommerce.

For example, AR can be used to magnify Vat19’s cool and fun personality:

Image via Vat19

Imagine you’ve just landed on their rubber band gun page. After a few seconds of reading, you’re about to leave. But before you can, the on screen text fades…and an office worker springs out from behind a desk while aiming his rubber band gun at you.

A mischievous grin forms on his face.

He pulls the trigger, and the background blurs as a rubber band hurtles slowly towards you…

Then right before it “hits” you, you’re asked if you’d like to use AR equipment to retaliate.

You click yes and end up battling it out.

A sort of rubber band version of this concept video here:  

(AR aliens invade an office and force an employee to take up arms)

Compare the interactive rubber band warfare above, to being greeted by a pop-up. Which of the two are you more likely to remember and tell your friends about?

The rubber band gunfight right? Because it was a fun activity you were engaged in. It was an experience.

Now the whole AR pop-up gaming concept might seem odd, but the ecommerce world is already using games to power up marketing. Augmented reality will simply make those games more interactive and “real”.

And--as the real world examples above show--AR games are one of many ways for brands to tell stories, create emotionally engaging experiences, and convey their personality.

Consumers Will Peruse Malls and Custom Products From Home

In the the next 5-10 years, it won’t be unlikely for people to browse virtual ecommerce stores from their homes, pick up and look at shelved products, and then purchase “in-store”.

Just like in this concept video from Chaotic Moon Studios below, where a guy uses Oculus Rift to enter a virtual shopping mall and grab a gift for a friend:

Please remember this is just a third party’s preview of the possibilities. It’s not in development by Facebook or Oculus.

Here’s a similar demo product from UK superstore Tesco:

Even though the graphics are poor, it’s often because the demo-tech is a proof of concept, not because computer graphics are incapable of rendering life-like images.

In fact, CG can render life-like images so well, that their use has tiptoed right under our noses...

Above is a screenshot taken from a video breakdown of CG effects. Now, is the shot practical, or is it CG?

If you guessed CG, you’re right, but just to what extent the shot was computer generated? 

The point is: Poor graphics won’t be too much of a problem once we’re past proof of concept demos and VR becomes common.

Also, these are the most obvious use-cases.  As more creative people adopt it, and how we use it matures, use-cases may become less obvious while the immersive opportunities grow.

For example, imagine the product placement opportunities if Ikea sponsored The Sims? Or Nike sponsored Fifa 15, and let you test their trainers and sports accessories while virtually kicking a soccer ball?

Product placement aside, VR can also be used to showcase or preview high-end, and heavily customizable products to shoot up customer satisfaction. A concept similar to this virtual jewelry store app created by Next Galaxy:

(A great way to combat buyer’s remorse if you ask me)

According to CEO of Next Galaxy, Mary Spio “This is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential for VR to revolutionize shopping and e-commerce. By providing the ability to preview content in new ways, our technology could dramatically improve sales and conversions."

For stores dealing in customized goods, like gaming controllers, furniture or jewellery, virtual reality will be a great visual aid. Instead of just wondering if selections look good, customers will see for themselves in real-time by slipping on their VR headsets.

Customer Service Will Untangle and Customer Support Debt Will Shrink  

Ever contacted your internet service provider to fix connection problems?

The process is usually as smooth as a couch made from sanding paper. AR can help smooth out customer service problems.

It is already enhancing the world of car/product repairs for companies like BMW and Mitsubishi:

(Thanks to augmented reality, mechanics get a clear 3D look at problems and receive step-by-step instructions)

In the future this can be adopted by stores to act as an easy alternative to complex instruction manuals.

This has the potential to reduce customer support debt. Similar to how online knowledge bases that answered FAQs did when they first came out, because step-by-step AR instructions will just be an evolution of that.

Customers Will “Try” Recommended Products At The Push Of A Button

Image via Getelastic

If you’re into hip sporty clothing and high end shoes, imagine being sent a link that models you in a crisp new tracksuit and fresh pair of white Jordans.

If you have a taste for smarter clothing, imagine being sent a link that adorns you in a stylish suit (complimenting your physical features, body type, and skin tone etc.) with a matching Rolex watch.

The scenario above is a strong possibility; because personalization is proven to boost conversions, and consumers value customized experiences. Augmented reality will just evolve the intensity and interactivity of those experiences.

Now, you might think brands will face resistance when asking customers to scan themselves, or personal items, but people have become increasingly comfortable with sharing personal data.

So in reality, this is less of a technology problem, and more of a positioning problem to be handled within marketing.

With “Always On” services like Amazon’s Echo, Xbox One’s Kinect, and countless others that have been recently introduced, the market has proven it is ready for this new wave of technology, as long as it proves useful to their everyday lives and shopping decisions.  

Businesses Will Gain Extra Advertising and Marketing Oomph

“Compared to traditional display advertising, those exposed to augmented reality are more likely to buy and do so at a higher price point.” says a study by Hidden Creative

In the study, two groups of 100 people were shown different adverts for a kids toy.

The first group saw a traditional video advert for the toy. The other was shown an AR version...the results?

With the traditional advert, parents estimated the average price to be £5.99, and 45% said they’d buy the toy.

However, with augmented reality, parents estimated the average price at £7.99, and 74% said they’d buy the toy.

It’s important to mention that the study wasn’t exactly thorough. It only observed people's words, not their actions; and was conducted on a small group of people. This weakens its accuracy.

But considering the effect augmented reality is having right now, and how it upgrades current marketing and logistical activities, you can appreciate how, and why, it will have a powerful impact.

AR and VR Are Knocking...

AR and VR are going to create a huge splash when they cannonball into into our daily lives. They’re going to revolutionize how businesses market themselves, engage with customers and operate.

So what can those involved in ecommerce do to prepare?

Ground your business in the the fundamentals of ecommerce. Strengthen your storytelling, streamline user experience and reinforce trust and credibility.

Because if your foundation is weak, then no amount of new tech will overcome that.

But if you’re standing strong, you’ll be primed to use augmented reality and virtual reality as powerful additions to your business and marketing arsenal.

How do you think augmented and virtual reality will boost your business? Will you craft interactive stories? Boost your cross-sells and upsells? Or focus on improving logistics?

Hassan Ud-deen is a content marketer who specializes in writing articles and case studies. Troll him under his bridge at Twitter.