How virtual reality is transforming shopping in stores

Published 09 January 2014 14:49, Updated 13 January 2014 12:08

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How virtual reality is transforming shopping in stores

Retailers are developing applications for Google Glass. Photo: Getty/AFP

In the not-too-distant future, grocery shoppers wearing Google Glass will see coupons for a new cereal flash before their eyes as they browse the breakfast aisle, while others in the dairy section will have information about the health benefits of soy milk pop up automatically on their iPads.

In the United States, dozens of big-name retailers – including Bloomingdale’s, Victoria’s Secret, Tesco, Wal-Mart and Target – already are experimenting with virtual reality and augmented reality.

  • Virtual reality is a computer-simulated 3D environment viewed through a computer screen or wireless glasses.
  • Augmented reality uses technology to alter the physical environment by adding sound, images or words to enhance the real-world experience.

Give it a few more years and the once ho-hum trip to the average store could be radically different.

The technology will give shoppers the power to make better buying decisions and eliminate some shopping irritations. Retailers are using virtual reality to improve store layouts and creating augmented reality applications for in-store navigation. Shoppers will also be able to try on clothes virtually – no more running in and out of dressing rooms with clothes that don’t fit.

“In five years, you will not walk into a retailer and get lost,” says Barbara Barclay, general manager of North America for Tobii, an eye-tracking technology company in Silicon Valley.

“They’ll know who you are and what your last shopping experience was. They will know where you’re looking on a shelf. The whole shopping experience in five years will be highly personalised.”

Stores focus on customer experience

Much of the new technology has been developed in Silicon Valley, where companies including consulting firm Accenture and 3D camera developer Matterport, as well as Tobii, have been quietly courting retailers with new products. Some are preparing for mass market roll-outs early next year.

“Everyone is interested in personalising shopping and augmented reality and virtual reality,” says William Brinkman, graduate director of the computer science department at Miami University of Ohio. “They are trying to see what their value is and what they do that Amazon doesn’t.”

Already, glimpses of this virtual reality retail bonanza have appeared from the San Francisco Bay Area to Europe. Bloomingdale’s recently tested virtual dressing rooms, which let customers “try on” outfits that appear when they are looking at themselves on a large screen.

Virtual dressing rooms let shoppers ‘try on clothes’ without actually getting undressed.Photo: Karen Hardy

Accenture has developed an app for Google Glass, the internet-connected and voice-controlled eyeglasses, that allows customers to explore Toyota showrooms and check out new cars through augmented reality.

Glashion, a fashion app for Google Glass, came out of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco in September. Using the app, Glass users can purchase fashion items online as soon as they spot someone else wearing it.

“It’s all about understanding how people think,” Barclay says. “It’s almost like being inside someone’s head.”

Retailers believe that virtual and augmented reality will make shopping easier than it’s ever been – easier even than online. Accenture has a new app for appliance, electronic, home improvement and grocery retailers, and one retailer that sells mobile devices is preparing to release it to customers, says Michael Redding, managing director of Accenture technology labs. Using a tablet or smartphone with the app installed, shoppers will see everything in a grocery store that’s gluten-free, for example, or the tile that matches their bathroom vanity at home.

In early 2014, Matterport will start publicly selling software that can create a 3D rendering of the inside of a house. People can view the rendering on a computer screen, explore the house as though taking a video tour and add objects to rooms. Matterport is selling the technology to home improvement and furniture retailers; Crate and Barrel founder Gordon Segal is an investor.

“Instead of the consumers shopping on the retailer’s turf, the retailer is being moved into (the customers’) kitchen and their living room,” says Matterport chief executive Bill Brown. “In a few years, we’ll have the technology on a tablet or smartphone.”

FaceCake in Los Angeles, the company behind the Bloomingdale’s virtual dressing rooms, will introduce a technology called Swivel to new retailers in early 2014. The company will add stores almost every month, says founder Linda Smith. Shoppers use hand gestures in front of the interactive screens to select clothes to virtually try on, and can accessorise and give themselves a makeover.

“It’s taking the frustration out of going into the dressing room with just a few items and not being able to mix and match outfits,” Smith says. “I tried to take everything about the shopping experience that I find irritating and offer a solution. If you had your dream shopping experience, that’s what I tried to put into this.”

Virtual and augmented reality apps will offer a level of insight into shoppers’ personal lives – their house, social networks, diet, dress size and shopping routine – that may feel like an invasion of privacy. But Matterport’s Brinkman points out between Facebook, PayPal and store loyalty programs, many businesses already have this information, but aren’t doing much with it that’s very useful for shoppers.

(c)2014 San Jose Mercury News

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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