Virtual Reality Shopping Experience Essay

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With a growing number of younger consumers drawn to the unique experience offered by AR and VR, retailers are interested in using these emerging technologies to build a greater competitive advantage and increase customer affinity for the brand.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are right at the intersection of retail and technology. As retailers search for new ways to provide an immersive customer experience, these technologies are leading the charge. VR and AR have the power to revolutionize our shopping behavior, alter our purchasing habits, and make our favorite brands more accessible. More than just changing habits, however, these new forms of reality promise to transform the entire customer experience as they add new layers of perception.

VR and AR Are Magnetic to Shoppers

Virtual and augmented reality hold out the promise of disrupting the entire retail environment. Applications using either of these technologies stand to eliminate customer pain points, elevate customer service, and create a differentiated, personalized customer experience. Plus, they’re just downright fun; they are novel, and have a game-like magnetism that no other retail experience can duplicate. Once customers become accustomed to the VR experience, they’ll be more drawn to seek it out and gravitate toward retailers who offer it.

Investors Are Taking Interest

The successful incorporation of VR and AR into retail models also has the potential to vastly change the way retailers think about stores of the future. Investment in the sector is heavy, with AR and VR startups raising $658 million in equity financing in 2015. Some projections put AR and VR investment in retail at close to $30 billion by 2020. A Statista survey estimates that in 2018, there will be 171 million active VR users. It’s important to note, however, that investing in VR requires the ability to take a longer view. With such a new technology, the ROI may be 24 to 36 months in the future, after a settling-in period. However, it’s increasingly obvious that the ROI, when it comes, is substantial.

Because of its nearly unlimited utility in a retail environment, the development of commercial VR and AR is accelerating. John Vary, innovation manager at retailer John Lewis, states: “We try to focus on transformative innovation–that’s our mission–but the pace of change is happening so quickly, what we think will take five years happens in two.”

What Exactly Are VR and AR?

A single, industry-wide definition has been difficult to agree upon, but from a high-level perspective, virtual reality is an immersive, three-dimensional, computer-generated environment that a user interacts with while wearing a special headset. Augmented reality is less immersive, but can be accessed via the consumers’ own mobile devices. It overlays information or computer-generated content on the real world, as seen through the device’s camera. “Pokemon Go” is the most famous recent use of AR. Virtual reality is forecast to hit $30 billion by 2020. There was plenty of intense chatter around virtual reality in the wake of Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift in early 2014. In a recent report published by Goldman Sachs, VR is named as one of the technologies “retailers will have to invest in to serve their customers and keep ahead of their competition.” John Vary has even coined a term that may be the best description of VR and AR shopping experiences: “retail theater.”

More Layers Than Just Real Life

Shopping with a smartphone and a virtual reality headset offers customers a fully immersive shopping experience. They move through the store just as they normally would, but they are simultaneously encountering products in a whole new sensory channel. AR and VR gives customers access to in-depth information on fit, manufacturing, uses and cross-sell opportunities. In fact, retailers themselves can use VR to test out store displays virtually before actually building them out. The number of uses is only beginning to be conceived.

Millennials Are Drawn to “Mixed Reality” Experiences

Retailers are interested in using these emerging technologies to build a greater competitive advantage and increase customer affinity for the brand. Research by Sonar shows that younger consumers are drawn to VR, AR, artificial intelligence, and the “mixed reality” that these technologies provide: 70 percent of U.S. millennials say they would be interested in brands that use these new shopping experiences, and 72 percent feel that these technologies will help the brand predict which products will be most appealing.

Lowe’s Pioneering on the Reality Frontier

One early adopter of AR and VR in a retail setting is Lowe’s. Lowe’s Innovation Labs (LIL) is a separate tech development engine, rolling out “narrative-driven innovation” to establish entirely new shopping environments. The main technologies for offering customers enriched three-dimensional channels are divided into various parts:

HoloRoom

The Lowe’s Holoroom, rolled out in 2015 in 19 U.S. stores, is a “digital power tool” to help customers visualize and share the home remodel they’re designing. VisualCommerce enables Lowe’s to manage thousands of SKUs as virtual 3D objects, along with their associated metadata. With the ability to populate a 3D space with actual products stocked by Lowe’s, shoppers can design their perfect bathroom or kitchen and literally walk into it, share it via YouTube 360 and then buy the products to turn their virtual design into reality.

They first design the space on the iPad, and then they put on an Oculus Rift VR headset and walk around in their new virtual design. This three-dimensional experience is the equivalent of trying on clothes in a store dressing room; it gives customers a spatial sense of how the new appliances and furnishings will actually fit together in their home space. Once users are satisfied with their selections, designs can be exported to YouTube 360 for viewing at home with a Google Cardboard.

HoloLens

This interactive “mixed reality” environment arose from a partnership between Lowe’s and Microsoft. Currently available in two pilot stores (Lynnwood, WA and Garner, NC), HoloLens technology allows customers to view physical objects in a real-life showroom, while viewing extra layers of information superimposed on them through the Microsoft HoloLens headset. With the merging of physical objects and holograms, customers can view a selection of design options and even “drag and drop” a kitchen island where they want it to be. Increasing sophistication will continue to be introduced to the HoloLens technology, including greater personalization and responsiveness. Customers will be able to let the HoloLens access their Pinterest boards, in order to acquire a unique sense of their preferences and tastes.

Lowe’s Vision

Scheduled for release in November 2016, Vision is a mobile app powered by Google’s Tango. Lowe’s describes Vision as a technology that “combines area learning, depth sensing and motion tracking to give devices the ability to see their environment in 3D.” The result of a collaboration between Lowe’s, Google and Lenovo (which is supplying the Phab 2 Pro, a Tango-enabled smartphone), Vision offers an entirely personal, portable mixed-reality system.

Lowe’s Innovation Labs Just Keep Working Their Magic

Probably the most disruptive aspect of Lowe’s technological integration is how it pervades every aspect of the retail experience. The Lowebot, for example, is a retail service robot that helps customers find what they’re looking for in stores, while also assisting with inventory management. The company is even experimenting with 3D printing of tools and parts in space!

Building New Consumer Expectations

While augmented reality and virtual reality still feel a little futuristic for commerce, big-name retailers are testing the technologies in ways that appear surprisingly simple and adaptable. As the technology becomes more popular, customers will come to expect this level of technological sophistication when making their purchasing decision.

Brand Identity Expressed Through Unique Experiences

The evolution from traditional brick-and-mortar stores to technologically innovative experiences is directly leading to a sharp rise in opportunities for consumer engagement. Tommy Hilfiger was a pioneer in this regard. CEO Daniel Grieder wanted to “offer retail experiences they (consumers) never thought possible.” Using a Samsung GearVR device, consumers can get a view of the runway and even take a sneak peek backstage of the Fall 2015 Hilfiger Collection.

In 2015, outerwear company The North Face, in collaboration with Jaunt, used virtual reality to provide shoppers with an immersive tour of California’s Yosemite National Park and the Moab desert in Utah. Late last year the two worked together once again and released the VR experience titled “The North Face: Nepal,” which allowed customers to immerse themselves in Nepal’s breathtaking landscape of ancient monuments and mountains.

The Era of VR Retail Is Just Beginning

There are still some early-phase issues lingering around VR, such as the general discomfort it can cause for some people and the cumbersome, unwieldy headsets. But with time these issues will be resolved; the streamlining is already underway. In early October, Google unveiled its virtual reality headset Daydream, which promises to be the most sleek and comfortable headset created to date.

This new retail landscape has been called Frontierless, as the boundaries between the layers of reality merge and the omnichannel shopping experience becomes “omni-reality.” It is no longer a question of whether IF retailers should use virtual reality, but how swiftly will they be able to notice the revolution of perception taking place on all sides. The power of VR and AR is only beginning to be understood, but retailers will partner with tech innovators to engage their customer base. As the future unfolds, mixed-reality shopping experiences will drive more than just buzz — they will become the engine of a profitable 21st century retail brand.

You’ve probably been in this situation before: you’re looking at a product online and you hesitate to buy because you’d rather see it in person first. Sound familiar?

Wouldn’t it be convenient if that product could magically appear in front of you? Virtual reality (VR) lets you do that, and believe it or not, it can now be done right from your browser.

At this year’s Shopify Unite conference, we wanted to show how 3D and virtual reality could be seamlessly embedded into Shopify stores, using a new technology called WebVR.

At this year’s Shopify Unite conference, we wanted to show how 3D and virtual reality could be seamlessly embedded into Shopify stores.

WebVR is an open standard that’s being integrated into experimental browser builds. It allows interactive 3D graphics running inside a webpage to be displayed within any available VR headset, without needing to download an app or special plugin.

For Unite, we built a proof of concept around a standing desk from Shopify merchant StandDesk. Right from the online store, users could put on a VR headset and view the desk in front of them.

They could raise and lower the desk (at the rate it moves at in real life) to see what it would be like to use it. Users could also customize the desk in VR, and when they took off their headset, their desk would be ready to purchase. You can try it yourself.

This project shows what’s possible for ecommerce with VR and the web. With this in mind, let’s walk through the considerations we made when building out this experience, including options for turning a product 3D, and what development tools are available.

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Why the web?

It can be frustrating to go to an online store only to be prompted with, “Download the mobile app!”. The same frustration can happen with VR shopping if you need to download a large app for every store you want to visit.

It’s also a high barrier to entry for a merchant, since they need to worry about creating and marketing an app, and also getting it on a marketplace like Steam or Oculus Home.

That’s why WebVR is so powerful. The 3D experience lives alongside the rest of the online store, and can take advantage of all the other benefits the web provides.

For our Unite experience, we found that we didn’t need to create a custom checkout in VR because we could just use the regular Shopify checkout flow. Customers would take their headsets off after viewing the desk, so having them go through a proven and optimized checkout was better than having them fumble with the process of entering a credit card in VR.

Responsive VR

One of the first things to consider with any VR experience is the type of headset it will run on. With web-based VR, we feel that implementations should adapt to as many devices as possible, in the same way that a website needs to respond to different devices and screen resolutions. Below are examples of how we accounted for each scenario.

1. Mobile headsets

Mobile headsets like the Daydream View and GearVR natively support WebVR. These types of headsets don’t allow you to walk around with them on as they only track where your head is looking. The accompanying controller can be used as a laser pointer for basic interactions with the scene, and moving around can be done by pointing and clicking where you want to go.

A Google Cardboard viewer can also be used, but the experience is limited because you don’t have a controller at all.

2. Desktop headsets

Headsets like the Vive and the Rift allow for the most immersive experiences because they track both the rotation and position of your head. Customers can walk around and fully explore a product, while being able to interact with it using a motion controller in each hand.

3. No headset

Most online shoppers don’t have VR headsets yet. The good news is that a 3D model can be interacted with, even without a headset. This functionality doesn’t need WebVR, and is supported by all major browsers.

4. Augmented reality?

It’s true…you’d rather see the desk where you’ll be using it, instead of seeing it in a virtual void. While WebAR is a thing, it’s got some catching up to do with WebVR. We’re hoping Apple’s ARKit will support it sooner rather than later.

For now, AR is mostly phone-based, and while it’s intuitive and convenient, the downside is that it’s not as immersive as VR. Instead of feeling like a desk is in front of you that you can walk up to and interact with, you feel like you’re looking at a photo of a desk on your phone. That’s why we’re looking forward to handsfree AR headsets with gesture tracking to become commercially available.

Turning products into 3D

Turning products into 3D is one of the biggest barriers for getting started with this tech, and there are a few ways we see developers tackling this challenge.

1. Photogrammetry/scanning

Photogrammetry is a technique where you take a bunch of photos of an object from different angles, and then special algorithms try to piece them all together into a 3D model. The results can be great, but the process to do it properly does take a good amount of skill. Highly reflective or transparent surfaces can also throw off the results.

2. Hiring a 3D artist

3D artists can create incredibly photorealistic models of pretty much anything. For the StandDesk example at Unite, we took several photos and measurements of the desk before modelling it. The process took a couple of days to get all the variations done.

The catch with this option is that it can be an expensive endeavour to get many SKUs modelled. But for a shop that only has one main product, or a selection of a few, it should be a no-brainer given how versatile the resulting 3D model is.

3. Converting CAD files

For many products, Computer-Aided Design (CAD) files are required for the manufacturing process. These files can be very large and can contain an incredible amount of detail, making them too complex to render in realtime for VR. CAD models often needs to be simplified before being converted into a realtime format, which can sometimes be done automatically.

While CAD files were provided to us for the standing desk, they were unfortunately only in 2D so we couldn’t use them.

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Developing WebVR experiences

Tools for creating WebVR experiences are still very limited, and we tested out several before settling on one for StandDesk. The first one we considered was Sketchfab, which is essentially YouTube for 3D models: you upload a 3D model, and then embed the viewer on any webpage using a snippet of code. It even supports viewing the model in VR at the correct scale.

It’s a really simple process and the perfect solution for many use-cases, especially since there’s an API that goes along with it. It was unfortunately too limited for our desk example, as we wanted to include our own VR controls to customize the desk while having the headset on.

We also looked at using Mozilla’s excellent VR framework A-frame, and also Clara.io, but ended up using PlayCanvas because of how it sped up our workflow and gave us tons of functionality.

PlayCanvas feels a lot like Unity built for the web, but with the collaborative features of Google Docs. Any change you make to the scene or to the code is reflected on all connected clients. That sped up debugging a lot, as someone could be in VR and see the changes in real time, as someone else was tweaking the scene on their laptop.

We based our project off the PlayCanvas WebVR example, which provided us with a basic scene with support for mobile and desktop VR controls. It also showed us that it’s possible to achieve 90 frames per second (60fps for mobile) on the web.

We’re really excited to see how tools evolve to make it easier to publish immersive virtual experiences in the browser. It’d be amazing to use familiar and powerful game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine, but their export to web functionality is clunky at best, and they don’t have any WebVR support yet.

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What’s next?

We're always looking at new ways of pushing VR and AR technology in the world of ecommerce. Our next steps are to make it easier for merchants and partners to get started with this technology on the Shopify platform.

We're always looking at new ways of pushing VR and AR technology in the world of ecommerce.

Shopify integration

A lot of custom work went into our Unite proof of concept. We’d like to make available parts of this so that developers don’t have to start from scratch with clients looking to use VR technology in their ecommerce site. Here are some common functionalities we’d like to provide:

  • Connecting each variant to different 3D models and materials.
  • Having the 3D viewer be in-sync with the Shopify page.
  • Customizing the environment (think Shopify Themes for VR).
  • Laying out an interactive variant menu for the virtual product.

In the not-too-distant future, you might even see the ability to upload 3D models for a product in the Shopify Admin!

Data analysis

While it’s nice to pitch merchants on the PR benefits of virtual reality hype, it’d be even better to show them how the tech can reduce returns by X% or drive up sales by Y%. That’s why we’re working towards providing Shopify merchants and partners alike with the data needed to backup this kind of development work.

Augmented reality

We’re going to follow ARKit, AR.js, and WebAR closely to see how we can bring AR seamlessly into the mix.

Shopify Partners for 3D/AR/VR

Merchants won’t be able to do all this themselves. Much like merchants can rely on our network of Shopify Partners and Experts to help with design, code, SEO, marketing, photography, etc., we want to start building a category of trusted partners for 3D model creation and building AR/VR experiences.

The future of VR

We’re really excited about how the immersion of virtual reality is starting to integrate with the power and accessibility of the web. This is just the beginning, and there’s still so much to learn and develop in terms of capabilities and best practices. If you’re looking to become a partner, or to build these experiences for your clients, send us an email at vr-team[at]shopify[dot]com.

Where do you see 3D/AR/VR in the world of ecommerce? Tell us in the comments below.

About the Author

Daniel heads-up Shopify’s virtual and augmented reality efforts. When he’s not working on VR, he’s probably still thinking about it.

Follow @pushmatrix

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