Virtual Reality Is the Next Frontier for Retail

Three Steps to Develop a Cohesive VR Experience

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Scene from SapientNitro's v-commerce virtual reality demo in a Soho loft.
Scene from SapientNitro's v-commerce virtual reality demo in a Soho loft.

For some customers, the story behind a product can be almost as important as the product itself. Such was the case for one recent shopper at The Apartment by The Line, a luxury boutique specializing in home d├ęcor, clothing and jewelry, who decided to buy a neoclassical black opaline glass lamp after learning it was a one-of-a-kind French antique.

The transaction would have been largely unremarkable except for one detail: This customer wasn't standing in SoHo browsing The Line's curated collection with a sales associate by her side. She was halfway around the world, interacting with a cutting-edge virtual display that used 360-degree video technology and a Samsung Gear VR headset to tour the showroom and learn more about the items she liked.

Welcome to the future of retail, where brands are in the early stages of using virtual reality to create fully immersive, contextual experiences that reach beyond existing physical and digital channels to create a very new, and very real, type of shopping experience: v-commerce.

While VR will likely leave its mark on nearly every industry, perhaps none is poised for transformation more than retail. For those stores and brands interested in capitalizing on the VR opportunity -- and indeed, any smart company should be -- here are three strategies for developing a cohesive v-commerce strategy:

1. Start playing and testing. While many retailers see VR as a long-term investment, widespread adoption is expected in as little as three years. In fact, data from CCS Insight reveals that the market for mobile augmented reality and virtual reality devices will reach $4 billion by 2018. To capitalize on the impending boom, companies should begin planning, developing and testing their VR strategy now.

For example, outdoor retailers could extend their standard product descriptions to include VR-enabled product experiences that allow customers to, for example, crawl inside a new tent to see if it could comfortably fit their family, or to see a campsite fully outfitted and discover new products they might need. Home improvement companies could design an application that allows customers to test products either in store or at home, virtually. These are just two examples of the many potential applications of VR for retail.

2. Focus on mobile-enabled VR. Nearly every smartphone manufactured today is VR-enabled by virtue of its screen resolution and processing power. Every smartphone owner has a set of virtual worlds, literally at their fingertips. As smartphone resolution and processors continue to improve, VR experiences will become more and more robust.

While tethered experiences, like Oculus, will also evolve, we think broad consumer adoption will be through mobile devices. It stands to reason then that the most logical way for retailers to incorporate VR into their existing channel mix is through developing mobile-enabled VR experiences.

For example, mobile-heavy flash retailers such as Gilt Group or Groupon could urge users to don their headsets and access limited-edition sales, assemble virtual looks and try on items using an avatar of their size and stature. Furniture manufacturers and retailers could build platforms that allow users to mix and match pieces from different collections, change colors and fabrics, and view items within the context of the home.

In the world of v-commerce, the experience is fully customized to highlight the brand's assets and address the needs and preferences of the customer. What's more, it provides companies large and small with a way to strengthen relationships with existing customers and reach new ones anywhere in the world.

3. Integrate technology. The introduction of VR will raise many of the technological challenges that surfaced years earlier with the emergence of mobile and web. The good news is that many companies now understand the need to integrate back-end technology in order to create a truly seamless experience.

At the same time, it's important to realize that VR technology will continue to evolve. Facebook and YouTube, for example, have opened their platforms to allow 360-degree video, and consumers now have access to affordable companion cameras such as the Ricoh Theta and Kodak SP360. The v-commerce platforms companies choose must be flexible enough to allow for the integration of these technologies, as well as new options that are sure to come along.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the success of VR will depend on how well developers can harness advancing technology and continue to integrate it seamlessly with existing assets.

One of the most exciting aspects of VR is that there is truly no limit to what companies can do with this new technology. If ever there was an opportunity to proceed with unbridled enthusiasm and creativity, it's now.

In three years, you'll be glad you did.