VR retail opportunities – raising the showroom ceiling

VRVirtual reality (VR) is quickly coming of age, delivering levels of engagement not seen in any other medium. As forward-thinking categories dip their feet into virtual retail worlds, there is enormous potential for brands, but we’re yet to see a retail experience where the promise meets the expectation and motivates the participant to return beyond an experimental interaction.

VR has already been used to evoke powerful emotion and creativity; reconnecting people with their passions, helping them overcome their fears, and providing virtual canvases for artists to ‘open the doorway to your imagination a little wider’. These experiences excite with their creativity, and promise new levels of engagement.

So why are the evocative powers of this game changing technology seemingly out of reach for retail brands?

This year we’ve seen some of the biggest players in this space release their VR hardware. Oculus, Samsung, Google, HTC and Sony’s VR offerings are all available or will be soon. With customers reporting strong desire for brands to participate in VR experiences, making the most of the technology for retail has many unknown challenges and opportunities.

The hidden future of this retail experience lies somewhere between what customers naturally want from VR, and how retailers can participate to engage. With this in mind, we took it upon ourselves to explore what the virtual future of retail might look like.

After developing a retail prototype using digital platform Unity for the HTC Vive, we custom modelled 3D content in Cinema 4D and added 3D scanned objects to explore the possibilities of retail VR. Three key things we found:

  • Designing scenes or interactions that are too realistic actually detracts from the virtual experience. Similar to the ‘uncanny valley phenomenon’ seen in robotics, where environments that are too realistic create expectations of realistic interaction and when those expectations are not met, it creates a level of frustration or discomfort. Counterintuitively, designers must introduce a degree of environmental ‘unreality’ to put users at ease.
  • The major challenge for retailers with large product catalogs is how they will represent this in a virtual environment. 2D images work from a functional  perspective, but VR promises so much more than flat billboards. 3D scanning provides the ultimate fidelity, but lack the photorealistic representation of 2D.
  • There is currently no “industry best practice” or “accepted design language” that exists for VR, the only way to know what works is to get in and try it. We discovered an intuitive shopping cart quality; it’s more natural in VR to pick-up objects and place them in a virtual cart than to perform this action with digital buttons (as you might on a website).

But everything we learned lead us to an inescapable nagging question: Why would a customer want to shop the same way in VR?

A physical store is a compelling experience because it has an atmosphere nearly impossible to replicate. With no increase in experience quality, efficiency or convenience, why would people bother?

Humans will continue to reward brands that create experiences that are enjoyable and pique our curiosity. Simply replicating an existing real world experience, limits the impact of existing VR experiences akin to a one-night stand: pleasurable, fleeting and…well, we know we’re all going to return to the real world tomorrow. So we began to push our experiments a little further.

One of the more interesting moments occurred when we created a ‘virtual cliff’ – a small platform that we could jump onto, and elevate to approximately 6-8 stories high. The platform orbited the ground below and while it was fun to fly around for a while, naturally we began to think:

What if we try to jump off?

Would we succumb to the same physiological responses as if stepping over the guardrail at an apartment building? Would our bodies even let us do it?

 

Virtual reality

Image: Looking over our virtual cliff to the ground below.

 

No one completed the task successfully at their first attempt. I can remember my hands shaking uncontrollably when I dangled my foot over the virtual edge and watching others as they experienced similarly acute emotional responses. The ability for VR to help us feel this moment of fear was impressive (and a little frightening), but it was the speed at which VR helped us reach this emotional response that made us think about how retailers can leverage VR to create profound emotional experiences for customers. We could see:

VR’s potential lies not in the mechanics of the product purchase experience, but in connecting with the human experiences behind each retail journey.

Brands have spent decades carefully crafting the type of emotional state they hope customers reach when experiencing their brands & products. VR has the potential to elicit this kind of powerful response and one could also argue it could be engineered to create overwhelming empathy, joy, arousal, accomplishment, gratitude, serenity, hope, pride or amusement.

In the race to build personalised, seamless digital ecosystems that predict the needs of the customer moment-to-moment, retailers have leapt to the same formula and missed an opportunity to create moments of unpredictable wonder and emotional immersion.

To harness the power of VR, retailers shouldn’t focus on replicating the environments where their products are purchased, but rather on using environments to enhance the presentation of their products by connecting with the emotions and experiences inherent to them; running shoes were created for the joy of running, hardware for the thrill of building, fashion for the pride in knowing you look good.

Within these moments lies the opportunity for retailers to create immersive customer experiences that celebrate the excitement, joy and delight within their brand.

In an era where loyalty is eroding, brands must find new ways to compete beyond products, price and range.

It’s no longer enough for brands to replicate product showrooms and simulate existing websites – brands must conjure experiences that are physically and emotionally immersive.

Here in Australia we are experiencing the next great retail transformation where ‘you either have product that really connects with people and almost forms some part of their identity’ or it’s just a ‘commodity’.

To stay relevant, retailers must plan their shift from this expanded commodity economy (distribution, convenience & price) to the experience economy (personalised, authentic, sensory) to establish or maintain any existing brand advantage.

Retailers must create atmospheres that don’t just fulfil a need, but satisfy desires and create memorable emotional experiences. This ‘experience economy’ is the key to unlocking the power of VR for retail. Imagine this:

virtual reality 3Putting on a headset and instantly being transported to the Halle forest in Belgium. You stroll aimlessly, the perfect solitude shared with the forest birds that call out high above you. It’s springtime, and a blue-violet carpet of bluebells is guiding you through the tranquil forest. The purple highlights on your walking shoes seem to blend with the forest floor, and the flowers part easily as they carry you toward the setting sun. Feeling an overwhelming sense of calm, you touch your shoes and select a different colour…

The fact the VR has been something of a mystery to retailers is unsurprising. Retailers (being retailers) have focused on the channel mechanics of retail, not on the human reasons behind each retail journey. With VR reaching its tipping point, it is only by harnessing the emotionally immersive power of virtual worlds, that retailers will discover how to recreate the shopping experience and add new emotional value to their brands.

Alex Wood & Simon Carter are a couple of curious strategists working at creative technology agency DT, with over 20 years in digital marketing, retail & creative technology experience between them. 

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