What can virtual reality mean for e-commerce? A CES demo gives us a glimpse

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As virtual reality (VR) becomes more accessible, it’s getting out of its novelty phase. But could it disrupt e-commerce? A very cool experience at CES in Vegas makes us think that it could, but industry experts see both sides.

With Facebook’s Oculus Rift finally available to preorder, virtual reality is the talk of the town, especially at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas this week.

The technology is far from new, however. Over the last year, brands have been using VR to create cool, immersive experiences for consumers. For one, Patrón used a drone to film a virtual tour of its tequila distillery from the perspective of a bee. Though Dave Snyder, executive creative director at Firstborn – the agency behind “The Art of Patrón” – believes that VR will continue to grow as a marketing tactic, he also thinks it’s best suited to stay on an experiential level.

“The notion of e-commerce having a role within VR – virtually walking into a Parisian boutique to by some chocolate from my flat in Brooklyn – is quite hysterical,” says Snyder. “VR is not going to replace Amazon or jumping in your car and driving to Target. For now, VR allows you a glimpse into a world you may never otherwise experience. You’re taking part in a story.”

However, due to its immersive nature, VR makes for inherently stronger brand experiences. For that reason, Beck Besecker, chief executive (CEO) of Marxent Labs, thinks it can play a vital role in e-commerce.

Marxent Labs was at CES with the Holoroom, a VR experience in partnership with Lowe’s. With an app that will be released later this quarter, users can build their dream kitchens, and then visualize them on Oculus Rift and export them to YouTube 360.

“Right now, the sweet spot for [augmented reality] and VR is high-consideration products that require some sort of configuration, like a kitchen or a deck. The real cost [for brands] is on boarding 3D content and for a $30,000 renovation project, it makes economic sense to invest in it,” says Besecker.

He believes that as VR becomes more widespread, 3D content will become cheaper and make its way to less-expensive products.

“Instead of videos and pictures, every product on every e-commerce site will be a 3D model you can manipulate, which opens the door for more virtual shopping experiences,” predicts Besecker.

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In Cannes last summer, SapientNitro debuted a VR experience that allowed consumers to virtually add items to their shopping carts. Retailers can follow suit by allowing consumers to virtually try on clothes. Likewise, automotive brands can give people a better glimpse of cars’ interiors without having to go to a dealership. And the list goes on.

Because the immersive experience has the potential to forge strong engagement, VR is a powerful branding tool. Brands can potentially insert product placements into VR experiences other than their own, almost like virtual native advertising.

Folgers went this route during a recent holiday campaign. Shortly before Christmas, Taste of Home, a cooking publication owned by Reader’s Digest Association, installed four gingerbread houses in New York City’s Madison Square Park. After shazaming the signs out front, people were able to take virtual tours of the houses’ interiors by moving their smartphones around. It was a fun, kid-friendly campaign, and where there are children, there are parents – which explains Folgers’ involvement.

Throughout the houses were Easter egg-style Folgers products that users could interact with. The experience wasn’t VR, but the same strategy could work just as well in this medium.

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Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital, compares VR to HDTV, something he remembers being one of the stars of earlier CES conferences that’s since achieved critical mass. Though VR isn’t new for advertisers, it is new for the public.

“If you’re a regular consumer, you can’t buy Oculus Rift until today; we’ve had them for a little under a year,” says Nelson.

Juniper Research expects 3 million VR headsets to be sold this year, a number that will swell to 30 million by 2020. As VR becomes more common, brands will naturally get more savvy, and it’s likely that they’ll figure out more ways to utilize it.

“Hardware, software, content: all three of those need to align before advertising, but I think it’ll happen. Where there’s attention, there will be advertisers,” says Nelson.

“Four years from now, we might be sitting at this table and go, ‘Remember when…'” he adds.

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