Why you should care
Because soon, the hottest boutique may be inside your home.
You’re in the market for a new pair of shoes, and you have three options: Try on a pair in the store, order a pair online (only to potentially send them back) or aim your phone at your feet. The shoes miraculously appear, and you can swipe to change the style before adding them to your cart.
Fast-forward a few years, and virtual reality could transform your home into an exact replica of your favorite mall (or perhaps a mall that only exists in the cloud). Your personal shopper could be designed to look and sound like your favorite celebrity, and you can try on clothes by pointing.
Unbeknownst to most shoppers, the retail experience is poised for drastic, game-changing disruption. Sure, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) have already started to shape how we shop, but the real fun is only just beginning. A series of recent innovations could push these new technologies to the next level, making the VR shopping experience as prevalent as online shopping is today.
Eventually it will reach a point where anyone who can use a content editor … can upload 3-D models representing the products they sell.
John Thompson, MicroD
Health and beauty companies like Sephora and app developers like ModiFace are already using AR to let customers try on beauty products using a digital mirror, without applying makeup in real life. Furniture manufacturers are in the early stages of using AR to let customers see how bookshelves and dining room tables will look in your home before you make a purchase. Real estate agents are on the cusp of hosting VR open houses, even for properties that have yet to be built.
“Eventually it will reach a point where anyone who can use a content editor of a website can upload 3-D models representing the products they sell,” says John Thompson, the director of enterprise sales for MicroD, a technology solutions provider for the home furnishings industry.
In the past, there have been challenges to companies employing this technology. Chief among them: cost. The price of turning a physical object into a three-dimensional computer-generated model is “not inexpensive,” notes Thompson. “The software is fairly common, but the content, getting your products modeled, is an expensive undertaking.”
Steve Hrvoje Prpic, the CEO of U.K.-based VR development company Trillenium, explains that turning a physical product into a 3-D image typically requires a graphic designer to stitch together hundreds of digital photos of an object one at a time.
“Why do we not have augmented reality shopping already? Why isn’t it commercialized? Because the price of scanning of objects right now to put one product into AR shopping is $2,500,” he says.
Another issue is a lack of data that has historically existed around this sort of technology. Competition has inspired many brands to keep their return on investments to themselves, says Thompson, making it difficult to justify the expense for anyone considering implementing it. Many deemed VR and AR a gimmick until it could prove itself economically viable.
“Until those numbers started to become reliable, a lot of people doubted it,” Thompson says.
The price of VR and AR is starting to come down, thanks to the efforts of companies like Trillenium, which is majority-owned by British online fashion retailer Asos. Trillenium is building an app for Asos that will allow customers to try on shoes by aiming their smartphones at their feet. Using artificial intelligence, the company has also brought the cost of scanning a product down from $2,500 to $10. Thompson, whose team is working on integrating VR more into the home furnishings industry, believes it will become available within two years, and a competitive necessity within six.
Maria Steingoltz, a managing director at L.E.K. Consulting, says that AR and VR could follow a similar trajectory as e-commerce. “Just as e-commerce-only retailers like Amazon and Wayfair emerged where they had previously never been envisioned, thinking long term, there [could] be a time when there’s a virtual-reality-only retailer,” she says.
So get ready to visit the cloud. It may very well be the destination of the next “it” mall.