TIME Virtual Reality

How Virtual Reality Will Change the Way You Shop

BizTech Illos Virtual Reality
Martin Gee for TIME

The technology revolution is about much more than video games

Judging by this year’s SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, the virtual reality revolution has already begun. Participants this month were treated to everything from panels on city planning using VR to dedicated VR lounges where they could explore NASA spacecraft.

But, in a sign of things to come, one of the most talked about VR experience was a clever marketing campaign. McDonald’s gave users headsets and transported them inside a Happy Meal box. Armed with a virtual paintbrush, they decorated the box in wild colors, while surrounded by all the trappings of a Happy Meal.

Not surprisingly, retailers – especially the online kind – are already taking notice of VR’s potential. Ecommerce reached new heights in 2016, with Amazon eclipsing Walmart’s valuation and online sales of consumer packaged goods spiking 42 percent. Still, there’s one big challenge to sustained growth: the deep-rooted desire to try before we buy. Not just seeing but holding, wearing and trying out are all key steps in the purchase process. This barrier has long been reflected in online “conversion rates” (the percentage of browsers who become buyers), which hover around 2%-4%, compared to rates of 20%-40% in brick-and-mortar retailers.

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But that may all be about to change. A host of improvements in user experience are making it easier than ever for buyers to find and even try products online. I’ve seen these changes up-close at my own company, where shoppers are experimenting with new ways to try out home improvements before ever clicking the buy button. Innovations in VR and AR are quietly making shopping online as real – if not more so – than the real thing.

Facebook 360, new technology powered by Oculus that allows users to navigate 360-degree videos in their News Feed (no headset required), has offered a VR gateway for many brands. For instance, NARS makeup is using Facebook 360 to offer customers a new way to try on makeup through their smartphones. UFC, the Sundance Film Festival and news outlets like BBC are already aggressively using the new platform. Expect to see Facebook 360 become more widely embraced by companies in the year ahead – offering a way to explore products and experiences from virtually any angle.

Meanwhile, fully immersive VR is already being used by brands, as well, albeit primarily in a brick-and-mortar setting. At Tommy Hilfiger and Dior, shoppers can don VR headsets to watch 360-degree runway shows and even go behind-the-scenes with models. Meanwhile, AT&T has partnered with Samsung to offer a VR experience at 133 stores, using Samsung’s GearVR to send shoppers on a virtual Carnival Cruise.

Why aren’t these experiences offered for buyers online? For the moment, the primary hurdle seems to be a hardware one. Only a tiny fraction of shoppers actually have their own VR headsets. But with the newfound popularity of Google Cardboard and other low-cost, low-tech solutions that transform smartphones into headsets, expect to see full VR begin to make the leap to ecommerce in the very near future.

For online retailers, the appeal is obvious. The CEO of YouVisit, creator of VR video content for Carnival and other companies, points out “that interactivity leads to immersion, and that immersion leads to conversion.” At the same time, VR can open up exciting new possibilities for cross-sells and upsells, as consumers wander through a virtual store rather than being trapped on a static 2D product page.

If seeing is believing, trying on seals the deal. Augmented reality or AR goes beyond VR in some key respects, enabling users to integrate real and virtual scenes – in effect, allowing us to try on products before we buy. Early examples are already cropping up. Last year, a popular app allowed shoppers to try on an Apple Watch (on their own wrist) using their smartphone as a kind of virtual mirror. Though it was subsequently snuffed by Apple, the app made it possible to look at the watch from all different angles, change the band colors and even toggle between different sizes. The same kind of technology, in more basic form, has already revolutionized how shoppers browse for eyeglasses and jewelry online.

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One truly exciting application for AR and related technologies is to showcase large purchases like furniture that consumers often have trouble visualizing in their home (even when shopping in an actual showroom). The tech platform Cimagine has pioneered an AR tool that lets shoppers arrange furniture and appliances in their own living space. By integrating users’ own photos of their home with product images, the app gives buyers a concrete visualization of potential purchases. Importantly, retailers can tap into this technology by incorporating a single line of Cimagine code into their sites.

Closer to home, BuildDirect has developed an augmented reality-inspired tool that lets online buyers design and furnish their own dream bathrooms, using the specs from their actual homes. Through the BuildDirect Design Center, customers can plan out and visualize renovations ahead of time, customizing everything from materials and fixtures to the actual layout, then viewing how the finished job looks.

These, of course, represent just the first baby steps in terms of applying AR to ecommerce. Magic Leap, which has just attracted another $800 million in venture capital, is working on a groundbreaking headset capable of superimposing interactive 3D imagery over real-world objects, in real time. And Microsoft’s HoloLens, which offers similar functionality, is already available for preorder. Tantalizing simulations of these two tools only hint at their potential ecommerce applications – promising a way for shoppers to visualize and even interact with products before buying.

Ultimately, these technologies come together to solve a fundamental challenge in ecommerce: integrating feeling – both physical and emotional – into the buying experience. In retail terms, it’s a case of back to the future, with next generation online sellers finding ways to restore old-school touch-and-try charm.

Jeff Booth is cofounder and CEO of BuildDirect. Follow him on Twitter @JeffBooth.

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