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Virtual Reality’s Retail Growing Pains

Retailers are always looking for the next tech product that’s going to give them the edge, and more than a few think virtual reality headsets are that killer app – but what if entering a virtual world takes consumers too far out of the real one?

The future has a bad habit of sneaking up on the present, and virtual reality – a technology long thought of as only abundantly existing in the realm of science fiction – has quietly broken into the retail world at Tommy Hilfiger. The fashion retailer became the first retailer to introduce virtual reality headsets that simulate a fashion show into its New York City location, with more installations to follow in stores across the globe.

So now that virtual reality looks to be here to stay, it’s also time to start asking hard questions, namely: Do virtual reality and retail even go together?

Before launching into that, it’s important to note that virtual reality technology in any form is still a product that is getting its feet under itself. Min-Liang Tan, CEO of gaming and technology studio Razer Inc., told The Wall Street Journal that there’s a fair amount of uncertainty over how virtual reality will develop in the future.

“We think VR is still in its infancy,” Tan said. “We know that this is a chicken or egg situation.”

Despite the lack of maturation in the field, consumers have shown demonstrated interest in trying out virtual reality technology. According to a Walker Sands report, 66 percent of consumers are ready to mix virtual reality into their retail shopping experiences, and 63 percent already admit that the technology will change the way they shop.

However, that change might not be for the better.

Lisa Bradner, senior vice president and managing director at Starcom, expressed doubts to Digiday over whether virtual reality headsets as they are right now are really adding much to the retail consumer experience. Simply having to stop what they’re doing and strap a cumbersome device to their heads could be too much friction in the path to purchase to justify the engaging novelty of virtual reality.

“The challenge is figuring out a way to make [virtual reality] additive and not disruptive,” Bradner said. “You want it to relate to the product you want to sell and to make someone want to buy it. Otherwise, it’s just a distraction.”

While virtual reality might provide an immersive experience of an alternate world, Mashable explained that such a sensation ends up pulling customers out of the real world they’re in. Also, developers have yet to find a way to safely incorporate user movement while blinded into the virtual reality headset experience. Because of this, users can really only move their heads around while remaining relatively stationary – a far cry from the freedom of movement and tactile experience of browsing through a brick-and-mortar store.

That missing sensation of touch could also prove to be a roadblock for widespread virtual reality adoption. As customers don their headsets, they immediately lose the ability to feel the fabric of a dress or the heft of a tool. Essentially, the lack of input from the consumer makes wearing a virtual reality headset a passive experience and one that developers are eager, but still unable, to address.

“Input is the most important and obvious thing to consumers,” Palmer Luckey, founder of virtual reality device developer Oculus VR, said during a company event, as quoted by Mashable. “As long as input isn’t there, people will ask, ‘Where’s my hands?’ … There is no clear path on how to produce that technology.”

If immersive virtual reality does not end up being the additive feature that in-store retailers hope it is, that doesn’t mean the technology is entirely useless. When consumer models hit shelves later this year, retailers might begin to experiment with recreating the in-store experience through virtual reality in consumers’ homes. As an add-on to existing eCommerce product research, in-home virtual reality might find a place in the retail world.

Virtual reality is understandably a paradigm-shifting technology, but retailers don’t always have to swing for the fences and adopt clunky and cumbersome devices just to draw customers into their stores. In fact, Sephora Innovation Lab’s Pocket Contour feature, which uses shoppers’ smartphone pictures to analyze all the contours of their face for better makeup application, eschews the all-encompassing nature of headset devices in favor of a more natural approach to virtual reality.

Will customers go for this sort of handheld pseudo-virtual reality? Or will both shoppers and retailers alike be left waiting for immersive experiences that don’t pull them quite so far out of the world they live in?

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