There is a lot of buzz regarding Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in the marketplace today. The Harvard Business Review describes the difference as follows: “VR immerses the consumer in a simulated world. It requires stand-alone technologies such as headsets and, typically, a controller. By comparison, AR overlays virtual elements onto the real world as seen through a smartphone or tablet.”(a)

With Samsung leading the charge among mobile device providers and the Oculus Rift becoming the pacesetter among the gaming community, which is moving quickly to drive the user experience in this direction, retailers are anxious to try and figure out ways to marry up their in store experiences with their online strategies to create a truly seamless consumer/brand experience. Analysts predict VR will be a $40 billion industry by 2020.

What are some of the uses for VR/AR currently being deployed or contemplated at retail?

  • Tommy Hilfiger and Dior have developed a VR catwalk experience for consumers while they are in-store using an Oculus Rift
  • IKEA has developed their VR Kitchen App that allows consumers to experience their new kitchens as they design them in store
  • North Face transported their consumers to Yosemite National Park while they were shopping in store
  • There are “Smart Mirrors” for fitting rooms in a number of retail stores
  • Virtual tours are being developed and utilized by tour companies and automotive companies do feel the experience before they purchase a trip or a car

There is little doubt that retailers value deeper connections to the consumer. The main economic reason is articulated perfectly by the CEO of YouVisit, a creator of VR content points out that “Interactivity leads to immersion and immersion leads to conversion”. I can see an application where lazy consumers will want to browse a store while they are online, at home in their pajamas. That would be a killer app as I believe shoppers will always love to browse a store or store like environment.

This is all well and good especially for the 181 million predicted to become VR users by 2018. The equipment, which today is expensive for the most part (Oculus Rifts retails for $599), will become more accessible and the technology will continue to evolve and improve. Then what? Are we now going to yearn for perfection and utopia even more? Will every experience need to be of the virtual or augmented type? Will reality cease to suffice?

I don’t mean to get existential here but at retail, the store experience, the feel of the fabric, the actual fit is what matters. While online shopping and Amazon are taking market share, the store experience still remains a key influence on total spend per capita and and the degree to which the consumer is invested in the brand and company.

So, while VR/AR will continue to simulate and even attempt to enhance reality, it is important to remember it can also distort reality, for reality is where we and our consumers all live.

(a) Virtual and Augmented Reality Will Reshape Retail; Dan McKone, Robert Haslehurst, Maria Steingoltz, HBR, September 9, 2016.