Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are two technologies that are the rage now. While the early adopters of VR and AR have been in gaming and entertainment, retailers have started harnessing their potential.
The focus right now is on the hardware: developing affordable and accessible devices that push the limits of VR and AR experiences. The doors are wide open for content and practical application outside of gaming and entertainment. These immersive sensory experiences can revolutionize ecommerce and transform the customer experience.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Defined
VR and AR use related technologies, but they are ultimately different in purpose and delivery. Virtual reality is an attempt to replace the real world with an artificial simulation, while augmented reality simply overlays virtual objects into the real world.
Virtual reality immerses the user in a computer-generated environment by stimulating their vision and hearing. By wearing VR devices such as helmets and haptic feedback gloves, you could navigate through virtual worlds.
By contrast, augmented reality blends digital components into the real world by superimposing computer-generated graphics atop an existing reality. AR is developed into apps, and people can use their mobile devices to add new layers of interaction onto physical spaces.
Augmented Reality in the Retail Space
Wayfair, an online furnishings and décor retailer has been experimenting on virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D scanning to improve the customer shopping experience. This week, they launched WayfairView, it’s new augmented reality smartphone app, developed by the company’s in-house research and development team.
With this technology, customers no longer have to guess how furniture would look like in their homes or apartments. The app allows shoppers to visualize furniture in real space by virtually placing real products from Wayfair’s extensive catalog in any room at full scale. Users can move and add products around to see how they look before making a purchase.
“Wayfair Next is laying the groundwork for new innovations that will change the face of retail – all with first-party technology,” said Steve Conine, co-chairman and co-founder of Wayfair. “By digitizing our vast catalog through 3D scanning, we will dramatically improve the visualization of products to create the best possible shopping experience for our customers.”
Enhancing the Store Experience with Virtual Reality
The retail store offers sensory experiences that are still significant for shoppers. Virtual reality enables retailers to take the best elements of physical retail and transpose them into a virtual environment that’s integrated with the ease and convenience of online shopping.
Last month, eBay opened what it’s calling “the world’s first virtual reality department store.” By partnering with Australian retailer Myer, shoppers can browse and purchase more than 12,500 products in an immersive virtual world.
This is done by downloading eBay’s Virtual Reality Department Store app and putting on a headset. Once in the VR department store, shoppers are given a range of product categories. As you make choices, an algorithm adapts to your preferences and will offer recommendations to help you find items you might like. Using eBay’s Sight Search functionality, you can add products to your shopping cart simply by fixing your gaze on an item.
"It's been important to us that we don't just replicate the ecommerce experience in a virtual environment," said Jooman Park, the managing director at eBay Australia and New Zealand. "We are taking the best elements of traditional retail and expanding on them to improve browsing, selection, personalization and efficiency."
Companies such as Ikea, Lowe’s, North Face and Alibaba are turning to VR to sell products and make shopping more fun and interactive. eBay is among the first to allow customers to buy products through virtual reality.
Closing the Sale with Immersive Experiences
Virtual reality is considered the ultimate empathy machine, enabling people to experience the world through the lens of another person. For instance, users could safely experience the turmoils of war, social injustice or homelessness through an immersive virtual reality film. This immersion then breeds empathy.
Virtual reality “connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media,” said filmmaker Chris Milk during a Ted Talk. “It can change people’s perception of each other. That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”
Virtual reality and augmented reality offer immersive and interactive experiences that are truly engaging and visceral. This could be a huge opportunity for retailers to improve the customer experience by giving them more ways to experience products.
Immersive experiences equip customers with the knowledge they need to make purchasing decisions, and this information is crucial in closing the deal. Early adopters of these technologies could become the frontrunners of a VR- and AR-optimized ecommerce future.