For years virtual reality (VR) was nothing more than the stuff of science fiction, a far-off fantasy promising to take us to worlds both fantastic and mundane. But now, thanks to numerous advances in technology, VR is becoming a powerful tool for retailers everywhere. These cutting-edge headsets offer customers and operations teams various opportunities to view products and spaces at a lower cost and with more flexibility than traditional prototyping.

Meanwhile, we’ve also seen the advance of augmented reality (AR). While VR creates new spaces, AR overlays useful information over existing ones, turning existing retail environments into powerful, data-rich, interactive workspaces and shopping experiences. One of the first high-profile example of AR in retail was interaction with the hugely popular mobile video game Pokémon Go, with retailers providing in-game incentives for players to engage with the game in their stores. Companies have the opportunity to create similar effects with their own dedicated apps and innovations. The world of brick-and-mortar retail is poised to be permanently changed by this new level of interactivity, as both customers and operations teams reap the benefits of this exciting emerging technology.

Virtual Reality vs Augmented Reality

First, some definitions. Virtual reality relies on specially designed headsets to project two slightly different images into the eyes of the user, creating a three-dimensional effect. Accelerometers and cameras allow for head tracking and handheld controllers, enabling the user to view and sometimes manipulate objects in the virtual space. While this has long been a cost-prohibitive endeavor, advances in display, motion tracking, and graphics cards has put high-quality VR within grasp for many companies. Plus, headsets driven by smartphones can provide a more cost-effective but still high-quality experience.

Then there’s augmented reality. While there are burgeoning dedicated products such as Microsoft’s HoloLens headset, AR is more driven by camera-equipped smartphones. AR takes images of real-world environments and overlays data upon them, providing real-time, useful, tangible information to users in new and more readable ways. AR applications can make tasks easier and increase productivity in many facets of living. AR in retail can make shopping more fun and accessible for customers.

The Changing Face of Operations

With its powerful ability to simulate real-world environments and situations at lower cost and with more flexibility, VR provides multiple opportunities for operations teams to explore new avenues and cut costs. VR training promises to serve both as an alternative to existing training practices as well as an expansion of them. Now, instead of having to run through scenarios in real situations on the sales floor in front of customers, retailers can run their multiple associates through multiple scenarios with AI trainers. This can cut back on the demands made on trainers and also train more associates faster.

Meanwhile, VR applications such heat maps allow operations teams to try out new designs and layouts before focus groups without the need to reset an entire store, saving time and money. There’s also lots of potential in the use of dedicated AR devices. While smart glasses have yet to take off in the consumer space, companies like Vuzix are providing augmented reality headsets to retailers, allowing associates to keep their eyes up while working, and providing more information to workers on and off the sales floor.

The New In-Store Experience

Retailers in all different sectors are using VR to enhance customer experiences and entice shoppers. These are, in some ways, “halo” experiences designed to create positive associations with products and draw customers in, a “wow” factor that can redefine, rejuvenate, and affirm a brand. For example, North Face provides VR videos to transport shoppers to far-away locales, placing them inside brand-appropriate simulations. But there are also more direct applications of these headsets. Lowe’s uses VR to create virtual rooms in order to try out combinations of products and prototype remodels for customers. This makes the process of redoing a kitchen or bathroom far easier than it might be otherwise, since it enables people to preview a room before committing to a single look. Customers can then use Google Cardboard at home to view their designs and make better, more informed choices.

AR in retail takes a slightly different approach to customer interaction. AR advertisements invite customers to engage with brands in a more real and visceral way than can be done with conventional signage, while AR enabled apps enable shoppers to engage with signage and displays by adding new layers of interactivity. These apps can also scan product and provide further information, such as pricing, sizes, and colors. Some retailers take a different approach, and integrate augmented reality displays in-store, allowing customers to try on different looks in smart mirrors. The very face of the brick-and-mortar experience is changing and with VR and AR in retail, an exciting new future awaits customers and retailers alike.

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