Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in July 2016 and was updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness on October 27, 2017.

If you had asked me when I was younger what the future was going to be like, I would have immediately spouted off a long list of fantastical things like flying cars and robot butlers.  While most of these things were clearly inspired by my knowledge of The Jetsons, I probably also would have included virtual reality (in much less eloquent terms) as one of the many seemingly impossible things we would be able to experience.

While we’re definitely still years away from most of the things I imagined, virtual reality is slowly but surely creeping into the consciousness of the marketing and business communities.  Even though it’s not as common as my eight-year-old self might have hoped, the quick evolution of VR is a sign that, in one sense, the future has arrived!

What is Virtual Reality?

I understand that the concept of VR might still be a bit fuzzy to some of you, so let me back up for a second.  Virtual reality – otherwise known as immersive multimedia or computer-simulated reality – combines technology and experience design to create completely immersive environments that make users feel like they’ve truly entered simulated environments.  With endless storytelling potential, it has quickly been evolving within the film and entertainment industries.

This development has led to exciting advancements in interface and interaction design.  Using specifically-designed headsets, this revolutionary technology places heavy emphasis on user experience, allowing people to fulfill their dreams of entering film and video game universes (without the dangers associated with space travel, of course).

Virtual reality isn’t only making waves in the entertainment industry, though.  Over the past several years the retail industry has been embracing customers’ needs for omnichannel experiences, beginning with a strong focus on mobile optimization.  This preoccupation has been especially important for ecommerce, as conversion rates on mobile devices have continued to climb.

Mobile sessions grew at 10 times the rate of desktop sessions
Mobile sessions grew at 10 times the rate of desktop sessions in the past year, starting to close the gap between mobile and desktop conversion rates.

This makes VR the next logical phase in the evolution of ecommerce marketing and engagement.  With innovations like 3D printing, facial recognition software, and wearable tech picking up steam, more customers are beginning to demand and expect experiential retail practices that emphasize delight factors.  With predictions that VR will grow to be a $4 billion industry by 2018, there are even some schools of thought that believe virtual reality is going to be for Generation Z what smartphones are to Millennials.

The Growing Pains of Virtual Reality

As it stands, there are still several obstacles preventing VR from becoming a common occurrence in the ecommerce world.  For one thing, a lot of the technology required is still lacking sophistication.  Virtual reality is still in the relatively early stages of development with very little data regarding what consumers are looking for in this type of experience.  This makes it very costly and time-consuming to create and distribute.

Very little consumer data is available for virtual reality, making it difficult to develop and distribute.

This lack of sophistication and difficulty of distribution results in a low user-adoption rate.  Unlike some brick and mortar retailers who are able to provide VR accessories to customers, ecommerce merchants rely on their customers owning their own headsets in order to complete the experience.  

Only 5% of North Americans claim to own a virtual reality headset.

Even though VR headsets are commercially available for purchase, their high price point makes it a costly investment that many consumers aren’t currently willing to make.  According to research conducted by Global Web Index, only 5% of North Americans own a VR headset.  This lack of consumer buy-in further inhibits the rate of virtual reality development, once again making it feel like a dream in a galaxy far, far away.

The Beginnings of Virtual Reality in eCommerce

Before you lose all faith in VR, though, I have some good news!  Yes, virtual reality seems to be a bit slow out of the gate, but what technology wasn’t?  When smartphones first came out, a lot of my friends (myself included) were hesitant to buy one because there was no data to prove they actually functioned as promised.  As soon as we knew they behaved as was advertised, however, we were very quick to surrender our chunky flip phones and hop on the touchscreen train.

Technological revolutions require pioneers that are willing to take risks in order to improve functionality.

These technological revolutions also require pioneers – companies that are willing to take risks in an effort to make colossal progress in their customer experience development.  Virtual reality found its champion in Myer, an Australian retailer who partnered with eBay to launch the first ever VR department store.

Using the “Shoptical” cardboard VR viewer, customers are treated to a personalized experience that brings the instore experience to them no matter where they are.  When items are added to their cart, shoppers are shown a series of related products, creating a continuous shopping experience directed by their personal preferences and shopping history.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “how is this any different than shopping on a mobile phone?”  This a legitimate question, but can be answered with one word: discovery.  When customers shop with the Shoptical, they are given the opportunity to experience the products from every angle with the freedom to move, rotate, and zoom in on them however they choose.

This method of exploration brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “what you see is what you get”.  By allowing customers to explore every aspect of the products they’re purchasing customers feel comfortable that what they order is what they’ll receive.  This gives Myer the chance to bridge a common “trust gap” that might have prevented people from shopping online in the past.

Giving shoppers the opportunity to “try before they buy” provides them with additional support in the awareness phase of the customer journey, increasing the convenience of shopping with that brand.  Home renovation companies and furniture retailers are beginning to experiment with similar processes as well, making their products and services more accessible to customers at any stage in the customer journey.

Leveraging Virtual Reality for eCommerce

The success Myer has experienced opens the doors for more experimentation with VR in ecommerce, particularly through the use of storytelling.  As an immersive experience, virtual reality engages with customers on an emotional level that other traditional marketing strategies can’t.  By placing them in the heart of the action, the customer is made “the hero of their own story” and assumes ownership of their relationship with the brand.

The Walt Disney Company has been doing this for years with their Magic Mirror princess portal.  Customers of all ages can be transformed into their favourite princess, placing them directly in the heart of the Company’s stories while experiencing the merchandise firsthand.

Dior has played with a similar “show and tell” format, allowing customers to experience their fashion shows outside of the runway.  With an experience that can pivot 360 degrees, customers are able to experience the elegance and exclusivity of premiere fashion wherever they are.

Even the food industry’s getting in on it.  McDonald’s Sweden launched a virtual reality campaign that allowed customers to turn their iconic Happy Meal Box into a VR headset known as “Happy Goggles”.  While this particular VR offering was designed for children, its playful nature clearly demonstrates the engaging and amusing capabilities of VR, showing customers a different side of the company and its products that are sure to make a lasting impression.

The Future of Engaging Content

Whether you’re a fan of virtual reality or not, you can’t deny that the content marketing engine is shifting in that direction.  Brands have been experimenting with augmented reality for years, and with the success of applications like Periscope and Facebook 360 virtual reality is the next link in the visual marketing chain.

As retailers continue to work towards putting their products in front of customers no matter where they are, VR will become increasingly important and desirable in any marketing strategy.  I think Jeff Booth said it best when he announced that “interaction leads to immersion, and immersion leads to conversion.”