The Future of Virtual Retail: Play Before You Pay

by Will Mason • June 10th, 2015

As a kid one of my favorite things was getting my parents to take me to Toys ‘R Us. I would drag them around the isles as I spent as much time as they would let me playing around with the RC cars, Nerf guns, video games and on one special occasion – Virtual Boys – all before finally settling on spending my allowance on multiple packs of Pokemon cards (all about that holographic Charizard).

The point is that playing with toys has always been a key part of the toy shopping experience. I mean do I have to point out this famously epic scene from Big? Brick and mortar stores have long understood that concept, even shifting in the direction of being even more experiential.

Today though, we are faced with the decision between the convenience and prevalence of online shopping and the experiential nature of the classic toy store; and if shuttering doors are any indication, the public is leaning one way. We have traded the experience for the convenience. But what if you could have your cake and eat it too?

Meet VRetail – a look into what the future of online shopping will be with virtual retail. VRetail seamlessly blends the experiential benefits of shopping in a physical store with the convenience of online shopping.

I first had the chance to try VRetail at CES earlier this year. That demo was a shoe shopping experience that showed some promise but ultimately devolved into me chucking shoes at the mannequin.

But recently I had a chance to see the updated version of Sixense’s VRetail experience and I have to say I left extremely impressed.

The new experience takes you out of the dressing room and into the living room. On the wall behind you are rows of shelves, each holding a toy.

The purchasing interface for VRetail

The purchasing interface for VRetail

I reached out and squeezed the trigger to grab one of the drones on the wall. As I set it down in the air in front of me a menu appears next to it. Floating in front of me is everything I would want to know about the product, a description, price, access to reviews, as well as a number of nifty features like the ability to customize the color of the product. It was a clean UI but that wasn’t want was impressive.

“Try throwing the drone in the air,” the exhibitor instructs.

I comply and suddenly the drone springs to life buzzing in the air in front of me.

Looking down at my hands I saw models of the Sixsense controllers in them. I smiled as I knew instantly what was going on. I was going to get a chance to be a kid at Toys ‘R Us all over again.

I flew the drone haphazardly around the virtual room, making sure to knock over every vase along the way. It took a moment to get used to the controls within virtual space, but once I did I was able to fly the drone around in a circle around my avatar’s head – causing me to turn and see the live streamed camera from the drone projected on the TV behind me, a really nice touch.

Knocking over vases with no consequences!

Knocking over vases with no consequences!

Having flown the drone around the room for a bit I thought I had a pretty good impression of what it would be like to actually use, something that I simply couldn’t have gotten from videos on its Amazon page. With the press of a button I was back to the menu where I could purchase the item.

Right now VRetail is a tech demo, demonstrating both the transformative power of VR and the Sixense controllers. The store doesn’t actually let you buy things, you can’t interact with the social media icons, etc. it is there to show the potential. That potential, however, is one that I believe will transform the way we shop forever in the future. As is, the experience worked extremely well because it was crafted around the input that the company builds. Having a joystick for each thumb, it skeumorphically replicates the controls of many drones and RC cars – which were the main components of the demo. Those same controls might not work as well for, for example, a Tickle Me Elmo doll. But VR will come with multiple forms of input, because no single solution will work for everything – until we eventually get to brain machine interfacing that is. 

But the ability to try products in a virtual space before you buy them, to eventually feel the cashmere on the sweater using some form of haptic glove (for example); these are things that don’t just add to the virtual shopping experience – they fundamentally change it.

It likely won’t be Sixense that leads the virtual shopping revolution, that will likely be a company like Amazon – who already has the established massive distribution and shipping network; but virtual retail is coming, and it is coming soon. And we should all be very excited.

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