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ARTICLE TechnologyApril 4, 2016

Virtual reality meets e-commerce

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A real estate investor walks through 30 properties in Australia before deciding to purchase two of them, all from the comfort of his lounge room in Singapore. A junior accountant tries on four pairs of jeans and five skirts and walks up and down a modelling runway in each during the first 10 minutes of her lunch break without once leaving her desk. A group of friends in the US travels to several stunning spots around Cairns in Queensland before booking tours with a local adventure guide, all from their apartments in Philadelphia.

Virtual reality has arrived. It has become a consumer reality. Once a hi-tech fantasy, the technology has advanced to such a stage that it is affordable for the masses.

It is being given away for free, in fact. In the US right now the New York Times has partnered with Google to send out one million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers, says Stefan Pernar, Managing Director and founder of Australian business Virtual Reality Ventures and President of the Australian Virtual Reality Industry Association. And Samsung is giving away 300,000 of its Gear VR headsets with US pre-orders of its Galaxy S7 handset.

“In Australia, virtual reality will spread like wildfire within two to three years,” Pernar says. “YouTube, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple – they all have something in the pipeline when it comes to virtual reality. But not everybody is so quick on their feet and that is where small start-ups are going to have a big advantage over some of the bigger operators.”

What is virtual reality?

Pernar says virtual reality has two vital ingredients. “The first is a high degree of field of vision,” he explains. “In a cinema you get around 50 degrees field of vision if you are close enough to the screen. Virtual reality starts at around 100 degrees field of vision.

“Then it requires the incorporation of head tracking. So when you move your head to the left or right, or up or down, or even forwards and backwards, the content on the screen has to update accordingly. It means you can look around in your environment.”

What virtual reality means to e-commerce

Pernar has worked with a retailer in Adelaide to create a virtual reality walk-through of their bricks and mortar shop, which can be done online from anywhere in the world. Any items a customer sees can then be purchased online. Items in the shop can be walked around and viewed from various angles, as a customer would do in a real shop.

Virtual Reality Ventures has built a clothing engine that allows customers in the virtual world to choose an item, try it on and watch themselves model the clothing on a catwalk, seeing how it looks as they move and walk. Customers first have a 3D body scan at one of several scanning stations currently being rolled out into major Australian shopping centres. Then retailers send their exact clothing sizes and patterns to Virtual Reality Adventures, meaning customers see and find the perfect fit.

But it’s not just about fashion and traditional retail. The real estate industry is ripe for disruption, Pernar says. After all, why would somebody spend time travelling to 50 properties over endless weekends when instead they can do walk-throughs from the comfort of their own homes?

But virtual reality will actually offer more; the benefit is not just to the customer. As with all data-driven technology, virtual reality offers valuable feedback to the business, also.

Two-way feedback

“When you have a bricks and mortar store as well as an online store you can combine the two and get information back from people using virtual reality in your store,” Pernar explains.

“You can see how they move through the space and see where you have blind spots, places where product is not being noticed. This could be beneficial for retailers to not only offer customers a fantastic technological experience, but also to optimise the space in their actual retail store.”

As is the pattern with all new and useful technologies, once a few e-commerce operators begin to offer virtual reality, customers will quickly begin to expect it from all businesses. Those that don’t offer such a service could suddenly be considered old-fashioned. Do it well and virtual reality could become a real point of difference.

“This presents a great opportunity for smaller businesses,” Pernar says. “An agile business could gain significant market share if the larger businesses are not innovating in the right way.”

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