Key takeaways

  • In 2016, 14 million virtual reality devices are expected to be sold globally.
  • Early consumer adoption will mostly be for gaming, however a number of other industries are already using VR.
  • Eye tracking technology offers retailers extensive data capture opportunities.

This year, virtual reality (VR) has really gone places – some more unexpected than others. David Attenborough launched a documentary at the Natural History Museum in London that allows users to don headsets and ‘swim’ through ancient oceans. Real estate agents are now using the same technology to show potential buyers around their latest developments, which haven’t even been built yet. Beer maker Stella Artois offered commuters a birds-eye view of Wimbledon’s famous tennis courts. Qantas handed out VR headsets as part of a trial to entertain its first class passengers.

Similarly, the retail industry is leveraging virtual reality, an experience that involves the use of VR headsets to immerse the user in a digitally constructed environment.

Virtual reality is not to be confused with augmented reality, technology that enables virtual images to be overlaid on a real-world picture. That comes in a range of guises, such as a dressing-room ‘magic mirror’ that superimposes clothing onto your reflection.

While the purpose of augmented reality in retail is largely to facilitate and enhance the purchasing process, virtual reality serves a different purpose.

Out-of-this-world virtual retail

Back in 2014, clothing retailer TopShop pioneered the use of Oculus Rift virtual reality in its flagship store to place shoppers in the ‘front row’ of fashion shows. Users were able to see the catwalk and even turn to look at the people (or presumably, celebrities) ‘sat’ around them. The experience tied in to allow the purchase of clothes, makeup and even music used in the event.

Employing virtual reality in this way is honed towards creating an experience of the brand, offering a situation where the customer can’t physically be present or recreating an event that they might have missed. It helps build a brand story through an immersive environment – but ultimately with the aim of driving the customer in store or online to make a purchase.

Eventually, customers may be able seamlessly ‘stroll’ through a virtual store, making retail purchases as though in real life. For this to be successful, it must be executed as a truly immersive and credible experience that offers additional value. The technology hasn’t reached a level of sophistication to prompt any retailers to create such a virtual store – yet. However, it does increasingly offer data capture opportunities on a level that leaves traditional focus groups for dust.

Eye tracking for data

Digital recreations of stores on screen have long been used as an alternative to traditional research and test marketing efforts. Data collection in simulated situations is faster and more reliable than human monitored tests because information is automatically gathered and indexed, within a controlled environment.

New retina recognition technologies mean that it’s now possible to track eye movement when using virtual reality. Fove, a kickstarter-funded project that has also received investment from Samsung, claims to be the world’s first VR headset to incorporate eye tracking, while Germany’s SensoMotoric Instruments has developed an eye tracking package for the Oculus Rift.

The applications for such technology in retail and beyond offer much scope. By monitoring more complex interactions in a simulated environment, this wealth of data could be used to enhance product or store placement or design. It could also be used to curate and enhance a virtual experience in real time.

Is virtual retail ready?

The ability to implement VR headsets within the retail experience is fast moving within wider reach. Oculus Rift’s consumer headset is set to launch in early 2016, as will Morpheus, Sony’s VR solution for the Playstation 4. Sales of virtual reality devices are predicted to hit 14 million units in 2016, rising to 22 million units by 2018. And though most of these are expected to be directed at gaming, there is something to consider closer to home: smartphones.

The processing power and screen resolution of most smartphones today and certainly in the future means they are perfectly equipped to power a virtual reality experience. Solutions such as Google Cardboard’s DIY headset or Samsung’s Gear VR, which begins to retail in the US from November, means smartphones can be teamed up more cost effectively with headset devices to create an immersive VR experience.

This increasing affordability and access means we will see an acceleration of virtual retail efforts, particularly for brand awareness. When it comes to data capture, the potential is clearly immense, however whether retailers make full use of this is yet to be seen. With many still navigating a course through their existing data sets, it may be a while before they’re ready to adopt the technology to create new ones.




John Riccio

John is a former partner at PwC Australia and the founder of Digital Pulse.

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