Virtual Retail-ity: How VR is evolving the retail experience

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VR is changing in-store retail / Stephan Sorkin

Retailers are up against it, as spending shifts online and a physical store becomes increasingly optional. But as head of VR at Framestore Karl Woolley explains, VR and AR are throwing the struggling high street a lifeline.

The experiences that can be created inside a VR headset - especially with the use of physical elements - are extraordinary. This makes it the perfect technology for IPs and brands to use to tell stories and engage with consumers by immersing them in a tailored experience.

Retail centres and large, purpose-built malls are in a position to reinvent the retail experience by diversifying their offering to include entertainment. Increasingly, this is being done by the roll out of location-based entertainment (LBE) experiences and brands like Sky in the UK and AT&T in the US who are adopting technology like VR and AR.

There’s a practical use for these technologies beyond just entertainment; to deliver an easier shopping experience and provide better context to consumers. For example, they could be used to show them how furniture will look in their home or what an item of clothing will look like on someone they’re buying a gift for. There are plenty of well executed AR examples of this since AR Core and AR Kit were launched.

But LBE is where I see the most interesting use of VR in the retail world. Because so often, if you’re visiting a huge shopping mall, like a Westfield or the Trafford Centre, it’s not a quick in-and-out but more likely a half- or full-day commitment, made in a group. So, if it’s a family day out, why wouldn’t shopping destinations provide something to engage and entertain everyone?

The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire was a great example of this. It connected with fans of Star Wars and let Westfield’s visitors do something more tailored to them. Family groups could split up; half going in search of the best deal on the sale rail while the others could engage with their favourite IP in a themed VR experience. As proof of how successful this was, The Void now has multiple sites at family entertainment centres around the globe including permanent residency at Disney Springs in Orlando and at the Downtown Disney District in California.

Framestore has recently been working with several brands on some incredibly interesting retail-focused LBE experiences, including one in partnership with AT&T stores and HBO in the run up to the last series of Game of Thrones. Several brick and mortar flagship AT&T stores became an experiential location in which fans could engage with this incredibly popular IP. They featured costumes and props from the series - including the Iron Throne itself - and let visitors take part in VR and AR experiences that put them either at the heart of a battle north of The Wall or being confronted by a White Walker in King’s Landing.

Beyond home entertainment

The growth of LBE experiences like this is mostly driven by the realities of VR technology. A few years ago there was an assumption that VR was going to be the next step in-home for games consoles. But in reality, the creation of a truly immersive experience, requires space and physical elements.

Samsung’s A Moon for all Mankind project is the perfect example of this. Framestore worked with creative agency Iris to create a lunar experience that promoted several Samsung products, including its Gear VR headset and a number of new Samsung smartphones.

Visitors taking part in this experience - which was available at the Winter Olympics, in the New York flagship store and is now available in the Samsung Galaxy store in Tokyo - are suspended in a purpose-built anti-gravity rig whilst wearing a VR headset. The combination of the two creates an incredibly immersive experience in which visitors exit a lunar capsule and explore the moon. The realism added to the experience by the rig and the physical space clearly isn’t something that can be replicated at home.

Long before VR becomes a part of at-home entertainment, it will become more visible in public spaces. LBE experiences will continue to enhance brand experiences used to tell stories, engage visitors and reimagine the retail experience.

For this to happen, retailers or mall operators only need to start thinking like the industry-leaders: AT&T, Samsung or Westfield. And it doesn’t need to be a huge investment in resources or cash. Smaller brands are also now able to use VR and LBE experiences as marketing tools because the technology and ability to create original in-headset content is more accessible than it’s ever been.

Thanks to VR, access to LBE experiences has become easier with immersive experiences no longer reserved for theme parks. With the options that it opens to brands, whether consumer products or retail operators, it’s easy to see why this is a growing trend and one that will continue. Here’s to the future of the retail experience.

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