It’s not that impossible to imagine a future that looks a lot like how Google first envisioned Google Glass – that everyone walks around with lenses on their face, using that to create a digital overlay on the real world.
It’s not that much farther of a step to imagine there would be a way to seamlessly move between clear lenses that truly overlay the digital onto the physical world around us, and lenses that can turn entirely opaque, and blot out reality, to then immerse a user into a virtual world. AR and VR then become the combined “mixed reality” (abbreviated as XR) that is starting to pervade tech vocabulary, where the two are just two ends of a single, shared spectrum of virtuality – low virtuality at the AR end, and total virtuality at the VR end.
There are plenty of advisability questions for how this would work in public. It’s bad enough now with people face down in their phones walking in front of cars or running into objects on the sidewalk. Let’s also imagine a world where people are stumbling around in full VR out on the streets. This is not a promising scenario for the future of the human race.
For retailers looking to develop an XR strategy, this advisability challenge is one to keep top of mind. Whether the XR industry moves to some end state of spectrum of virtuality or not – and whether anyone manages to build XR glasses that people will actually be willing to wear – the retail store requires retailers to keep the physical location top of mind when thinking about their XR strategy as it relates to consumers.
XR Works for eCommerce
Technically, retailers have to offer two very distinct customer experiences – one driven by physical location (the store) and one driven by digital (collectively, “eCommerce”, though digital can also mean through social channels and in various mobile or fixed formats).
Most of the best use cases in XR today come through eCommerce experiences. Wayfair and IKEA offer AR to see how furniture looks in your house. Sherwin Williams offers AR to see what a new paint color will look like on your walls. Diamond Hedge lets you try on virtual rings, and Sephora and L’Oreal offer virtual makeup through AR. All of these solutions are offered through apps downloaded to mobile phones, and which use the screen and the camera to project a digital image onto a physical one.
Augmented Reality can go beyond that as part of the online experience. You can think of 3D models as really a sort of “pre-AR” offering. It won’t take long before you can move from placing a 3D image of a couch in your living room to placing a 3D runway and models walking down it in different outfits in the same exact place. And not much longer to move from that to having the models be your exact body type as they walk down the runway.
That’s where there is the potential to shift to fully immersive experiences. Rather than a stand-alone runway, why not go full VR and sit in the front row of your own custom-curated Paris Fashion Week fashion show?
There is the temptation to create a virtual reality store – Alibaba has tried that. Those, so far, do not seem to have successfully created a customer experience that users want to repeat. Why go to a clunky, lonely virtual store, when you can go to a smoothly functioning store (you don’t have to navigate a joystick and some buttons to pick up an item) that is vibrant and doesn’t feel like you’re the last human left after the apocalypse?
This one half of the challenge of stores – they just aren’t going to translate well to a virtual reality space. VR might be “good enough” to experience a place you will probably never get to go – the front row of a designer’s catwalk in Paris during Fashion Week. But it’s not going to be “good enough” when you’re a five minute drive away from the real thing. The fidelity and the user interface become barriers when compared to the real thing, rather than enablers. And that means, in eCommerce, VR can definitely play a role, it’s just that this role will be about bringing otherwise inaccessible experiences to the masses rather than recreating sub-par versions of the experiences people can already have in real life.
VR Sells Stores Short
The other half of the challenge of stores is in the stores themselves. Stores are inherently physical in nature. Lego might have attempted to push the envelope with an AR-only store, but even then, even in presenting a completely white-walled space with almost nothing in it, the brand found more utility in letting people move freely around the space to explore through their phones, rather than tethering them to a VR experience that also would not allow them to easily interact with other people who were physically in that space. To be fair, some of this may have had a lot to do with the fact that the brand was partnering with Snapchat, but Snapchat’s interest in creating an AR store at least underscores AR tech’s interest in operating in these physical spaces.
Then there are the advisability questions. You can’t really have consumers whose vision is completely blocked by VR wandering around stores. Retailers like the Microsoft Store do offer VR experiences, but these are typically roped off, and monitored and assisted by at least one store employee. People take on these VR experiences more to try before they buy, for a VR gaming system, rather than to assist their in-store experience. And, even in cases where companies are offering VR experiences in stores, it’s more to take consumers to a place they might never go than it is to recreate something they can already have in real life.
Just as consumers are not going to drive all the way to a store to have an eCommerce experience, once we get past the novelty factor of VR, consumers are not going to drive to a store just to have a VR experience that they could have at home.
The Bottom Line
Full-immersion VR works great for telling a brand story or conveying a lifestyle, or for bringing a purely digital experience to life. But ultimately, retailers sell physical goods, and it’s going to be the digital augmentation of that physical environment and the products in that environment that will have the real payoff for the retail industry.
The store – the full immersion reality of it, with the lighting and the sound and the people and even the scents – is retail’s opportunity to convey the totality of its brand value and personality. AR can enhance that reality, as well as enhance the products that retailers are ultimately trying to sell. But VR should never try to replace it.
Date: March 28, 2019