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When Mark Zuckerberg buys a small tech startup that’s less the two years old, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was just another bored rich guy gathering up the competition. But when it emerges he’s parted with US$2billion in cash and Facebook stock, you really start to think he knows something the rest of us don’t. Virtual reality leaders Oculus VR, the company behind the Oculus Rift, was snapped up not just because of their product – which was pretty much still a prototype at that stage – but also because of that product’s potential in different industries. Along with gaming, education and sport, one industry that is particularly excited about what the future of virtual reality holds, is the retail communications sector. With VR (and AR) expected to grow into a combined $4 billion business by 2018, here’s a look at why people are so excited.
 
How did we get here?
While the Oculus Rift was the brand that captured mainstream interest in virtual reality, gaming companies have been messing around with the technology for decades, with varied levels of success. However, most results revolved around computer games where shooting zombies was about as advanced as it got. Focus on the industry dried up at the end of the 90s as 3D started to gather pace. But as that fad continues to die a slow and well-deserved death, innovative folk have started to reexamine more beneficial uses for virtual reality. With the bit between their teeth and money flooding into the field, the future is looking very cool indeed.
 
Shop until your broadband drops
First of all, there’s the sheer scale of possibilities for the shopper. Imagine being able to walk the aisles of your favourite store without having to leave the comfort of your own couch. You can browse a seemingly endless range of products, pick them up without approaching staff, change the colour of them in an instant and buy them even quicker. The best part, you never have to worry about carrying them home. Then, once you’ve seen enough, you can transport yourself right across the city, the state or even the globe and simply continue on.
 
Every store’s a favourite
Imagine a store that’s only full of the things you like. No more endless browsing of rails in the hope of divine inspiration. Digital inspiration will ensure that your shopping experience is tailored to your exact tastes, size and needs and not just what the shop hope you’ll like. It’ll be like Facebook’s targeted ads… on speed!
 
Get ready to go social shopping
Ever gone shopping alone, tried something on and ended up longing for someone else’s opinion? Virtual reality is set to give rise to social shopping. Regardless of their physical location, multiple friends will be able to visit the same virtual store at the same time and shop together. If you can’t agree on something, you’ll be able to share what you’re wearing on social media and get a real-time critique from your wider circle of followers.
 
Try before you buy
I recently talked about CES 2016. While VR wasn’t the main draw in Las Vegas, many brands had a VR offering to whet people’s appetite and get them excited about what’s coming down the line. One such brand was home hardware giant Lowe’s who were showcasing an experience where they helped customers create a layout of a room using a dedicated app. Excited designers could then simply throw on a virtual-reality headset and step right into that very room to try it on for size and shotgun the biggest bedroom.
 
It’s already started
Retale is a location-based app that allows users to browse digital versions of discount-flyers that big American stores distribute to their customers. Retale are about to release an Oculus Rift experience app they promise will provide “an immersive interface that connects the digital experience with an actual brick-and-mortar one”. After donning a VR headset and flipping through a number of selections to find your closest retailer relative to your current location, you can then chose the ‘Take Me To Showroom’ option. There, at this 3D rendering of your chosen retailer’s store, you can walk around, inspect products and pull up product information. Interestingly, Lowe’s has chosen to use VR as a complement to coming in store, not a replacement. As a result, they don’t have a facility to make purchases within the VR experience but rather have your selections waiting for pickup when you’re free to drop by. I love this. They know the technology’s not yet perfect and they know they don’t want to discourage people from coming in store, so they launch their VR offering without it damaging their current one. That’s the way to experiment with an emerging technology!
 
It’s not all about the shopper
While there are countless benefits and possibilities for shoppers using virtual reality, there are also a host of benefits for retailers. Having a virtual store will greatly reduce your costs for staff, stock and rent. You can also have a far larger virtual inventory than a physical space will allow. What’s more, a virtual store will give you an infinite reach that won’t really on footfall or be reliant on geography. Finally, in the technology-driven age that today’s shoppers are immersed in, virtual reality is a powerful promotion tool that is already helping pitch those brands brave enough to be experimenting with it as an innovative, in-touch brand that’s worth doing business with.
 
What the future really looks like
Virtual reality is no fad. Money is being invested, innovation is being championed and things are being tried. 360 degree videos, Google Cardboard, VR rollercoasters – things are just getting interesting. People like Mark Zuckerberg don’t piss away that kind of money on a whim. He can see that the technology has advanced and is quickly becoming more accessible and more affordable for normal Joes like you and me. But more than anything, consumers are ready. VR has been talked about for long enough and we are on the verge of the next step in man’s technological revolution. As the man himself said at Samsung’s recent launch of their new Galaxy S7: “It’s going to change the way we live, work and communicate.”