Last week here on campus at UNT, our GDRCC had the opportunity to host a dynamic conversation with Google’s Matthew Pritchard about the rise of 360 video, virtual reality and augmented reality. We are only at the beginning of exciting times as these innovations impact retailers and their consumer experiences. New technologies are rapidly developing because of evolving computing power and mobile technologies. In the past year alone, searches on Google for the keyword string ‘virtual reality’ have increased by four times, indicating adoption and interest from consumers. Google estimates the number of consumers who actively were using virtual reality to be 43 million in 2016 and that figure is expected to double this year. What is driving this growth is the technology, including smartphones that work compatibly with virtual reality headsets. While some retailers may presently be understandably hesitant to invest in these types of technologies because the consumer adoption is still evolving, all indicators predict mass adoption over the next 5 years.
This topic has three basic components combined with basic video as the foundation. 360 media or 360 video is the least expensive to produce in the category and can typically be experienced well on laptops, desktops or mobile devices. Many people are familiar with the concept of virtual reality, which is heavily used in gaming and is presently the most popular, as the user can feel like they are part of a scene and are able to easily interact. With augmented reality, the user can actually see the world in front of them and objects are overlaid into the scene. Finally, in mixed reality, virtual objects actually interact with the real world.
Google’s approach to these technologies debuted 3 years ago with the Google Cardboard on their 20% Project at the 2014 Google I/O Conference. This inexpensive, easy device utilizes the power of the user’s smartphone to facilitate the consumer’s ability to begin to experience virtual reality. Presently, Google has shipped about 5 million Google Cardboards. Virtual reality apps and photos now are specifically being developed for the Cardboard, with over 50 million app installs in Google Play. Their next generation product, Google Daydream, launched in 2016. Its intent is to be a more comfortable headset device, facilitating a longer, immersive experience such as to watch a movie.
For retailers who are considering moving to some of these technologies to enhance their consumer experience, the first consideration should be the need for added functionality and utility. The prevailing advice would be to at least experiment, possibly starting with the least expensive 360 videos, where customers have adapted more readily. Be prepared to experiment, as with any new technology, there will be successes and failures. As retailers, we need to think about what success looks like and how it will be measured. Success may not initially be big sales and or traffic gains, but rather may be elevated, engaged consumer experiences with the brand or retailer. Pritchard predicts that eventually, we will see augmented shopping become our norm, benefiting customers and retailers.
One of the best retailers leading the charge in this area is Wayfair, where they are using the Google Tango technology. It allows customers to measure and understand the space of the room to accurately purchase the correct scale of the actual product in the room setting. Other innovative retailer tests include Home Depot with their new augmented reality paint color selection app and IKEA with their in-store headsets. There is also the partnership between Chinese ecommerce leader Alibaba with Macys Times Square utilizing the Buy+ technology that engages virtual reality, allowing the customer to feel like they are in the store. With a nod of the head, the item is added to the customer’s cart.
We’re only in the early days of the developing areas of virtual, augmented and mixed reality technologies. How exciting it will be to participate in the journey with customers and retailers in their next purchasing reality.