Now that Black Friday is here, what about virtual reality shopping? Could VR end the madness of the Thanksgiving crowds rushing into stores and fighting over deals? Or at least enhance our customary retail experience?
Let’s look at a couple of virtual reality shopping proposals and what the future may hold.
Virtual Reality shopping
in Wired UK, Henry Stuart from the VR production company Visualize suggests that virtual reality shopping will be very tactile and personal:
Shopping will be tailored in VR . . . It will only show stuff that’s relevant to you, and you will be able to pick things up in the virtual world and feel them, as well as playing with them, before you start to buy them.
Stuart sees a time when we’ll do full-body scans and then meet friends online to shop for clothes.
The British designer Allison Crank sees a much more extreme virtual reality shopping experience. As Fast Company jokes, it looks like “Second Life on Acid”.
In Crank’s Reality Theater, the focus is less on the experience of shopping and more on entertainment. You’ll be immersed in surreal, dream-like landscapes:
a new third place for the public to meet, perform, indulge, and play in immersive environments.
Technically, we’re a long way from what she imagines. The project foresees people sitting on a train and virtually walking through an immersive media space, consuming entertainment, buying things and socializing with others.
Sixense Virtual Reality
For a more concrete proposal, take a look at the demo from Sixense – a wireless controller takes the best aspects of being in a store (physically handling the objects) and combines it with online shopping.
Sixense is in the Kickstarter doghouse due to their lack of communication and product delays (you can see the many negative comments here), but their video is a fascinating take on how you might shop in VR:
One thing they get right – virtual reality shopping will require the ability to manipulate objects. The problem with Sixense is their continual delays; Oculus will get to the market first. And their Kickstarter backers may be out of luck.
Volvo and Microsoft’s HoloLens
Perhaps the closest we are to a virtual reality shopping project right now is the recently announced partnership between Volvo and Microsoft. With the latter’s Hololens, Volvo wants to offer prospective buyers a physically empty but high-tech radically showroom.
Here’s how you might shop for a car using the mixed reality in HoloLens:
In the Medina
Years ago, I was in the Medina in Fez, Morocco, one of the oldest markets in the world. It was an amazing experience and I got hopelessly lost. Repeatedly. I understand why many tourists don’t visit without a guide. You immediately lose the feeling of being in control.
It’s why Americans like their malls – they’re predictable in their uniformity. When we shop we want to be in control – or more precisely, feel like we’re in control.
Of course, the Medina is not a puzzle to anyone living in Fez. But they experience it in a way I never could, an ever-changing flow of goods, discussions, bartering and surprises around every corner.
As a shopping platform, virtual reality will need to give us both agency and surprise, empowerment along with the delight of the unexpected. A Medina of the Mind.
Virtual Reality and Black Friday
Virtual Reality shopping will need a fully functional tactile element (hand controllers are only an interim solution). You need to see objects on you, visualize them by your side, flip them over. And shopping is a social experience – you want to interact with sellers and your friends.
We’ll get to virtual reality in entertainment long before we get to VR shopping. But when we do, our current VR platforms will seem rudimentary.
Until then, Black Friday will continue. And when virtual reality shopping finally arrives, I’m sure we’ll find new ways to (at least) virtually push and shove one another for the “bargain” of the year.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.