Companies Across the Board are Embracing VR Technology for Enhanced Customer Experience

VR has a great chance of becoming the next big thing in retail with the increasing number of adoption cases. Some professionals suggest that in 2016, an estimated 43 million people will own VR products worldwide, and this is set to grow to 170 million by 2018.

In the near future, we may see an increasing number of partnerships between large retailers/e-commerce giants and tech companies offering VR solutions to trial the option of shopping in VR. Headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Google Cardboard will be defining the future way to browse through offerings and to shop.

The idea of applying VR technology in retail is to bring together the best of online and physical to create superior shopping experience across industries. Some estimations suggest that VR has grown by nearly four times in the last year indicating a firm interest in the technology and its applications.

In fact, some of the most recent adoption cases suggest that VR is seen by retail/e-commerce companies as a highly potent way of enhancing shopping experience and boosting sales. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, for example, was recently reported to be working on introducing VR into online shopping. According to the news source, Alibaba’s 400 million customers will soon be able to buy products from stores all over the world, by wearing a VR helmet or glasses designed to simulate being in a physical store.

As Zhuang Zhuoran, Senior Director of Mobile at Alibaba, commented, VR is a great way to demonstrate products or services, especially for some categories, like furniture and travel products. It also adds more fun to shopping.

This initiative by Alibaba is not the first experience of the e-commerce giant with VR. In March this year, Alibaba announced its own VR research lab, dubbed GnomeMagic Lab with plans to help merchants use VR to sell on its sites. Earlier, in February, Alibaba participated in a funding round for VR startup Magic Leap, augmented and virtual reality technology company.

Moreover, at the end of July, at the Taobao Makers Festival, Alibaba demoed its VR shopping program called Buy+. As reported by Power Retail, the technology will allow users to select apparel and accessories with the help of a 360-degree panoramic view and assistance from a robotic shopping assistant, though it is expected to be some time before the product will be commercialized.

Just a couple days ago, online used-car retailer Vroom was reported to be opening VR showrooms in four cities – Grand Prairie, Houston, Austin, Phoenix. Customers who visit them would be able to wear VR headsets to check out 15 different car models that cost $25,000 to $60,000. People will also be able to test drive the cars in Vroom’s VR showroom. The startup will release a home version of its VR showroom by the end of the year that users can access using a Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear VR device, as reported by Fortune.

At the beginning of June, General Motors said that it would create virtual reality showrooms for its Cadillac brand of luxury cars. Earlier, in January, Audi also was reported to be working on VR showrooms with one built this year in Audi City London store using the HTC Vive virtual reality headset to showcase a high-end experience that will debut in Q2.

The North Face, in collaboration with IBM Watson, has also been experimenting with AI to help customers find the perfect product. As Cal Bouchard, Senior Director of E-Commerce at The North Face, commented, We jumped at the chance to try and harness IBM’s Watson technology to see what we could do to change online shopping. And the key word in there is ‘change’.

The Swedish furniture manufacturer IKEA that in April announced the release of a pilot virtual reality app, the IKEA VR Experience, on Valve’s world leading game platform Steam. The test app, featuring a virtual kitchen experience, is the first foray from IKEA into VR technology. The launch of the app is intended to solicit consumer feedback as IKEA continues to explore the possible implications of the technology for the home.

A different class of companies – Comcast and Time Warner – have also been showing signs of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Through their venture arms, Comcast Ventures and Time Warner Investments, companies joined those who contributed to last year's $30.5 million funding round for NextVR.

Comcast is also reported to be financially involved in such VR startups like cinematic content creator Felix & Paul Studios, communication platform AltspaceVR, and VR/mixed-reality company Spaces.

At the end of April this year, phone manufacturer Nokia announced a new, multi-year agreement with The Walt Disney Studios, designed to support the creation of virtual reality (VR) experiences to complement Disney's theatrical releases. Nokia Technologies will provide its OZO virtual reality camera and associated software to give Disney marketers and filmmakers the tools they need to create engaging VR content.

As Ramzi Haidamus, President at Nokia Technologies, commented, "Virtual Reality represents a new frontier in storytelling, and we're thrilled to be bringing this VR technology to the team at Disney. OZO will help Disney bring their film properties to life in new ways through immersive entertainment experiences, and our focus will be on helping them get the most out of VR as they begin to uncover all that it has to offer."