Home Trade Shows Pandemic Ushers In a New Era of Immersive AR/VR Retail

Pandemic Ushers In a New Era of Immersive AR/VR Retail

SXSW AR, VR, XR in Retail
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As has been the case with most creatively-minded technology and film festivals over the past half-decade, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and cross-reality (XR) were the subject of several panels at this year’s virtual SXSW. Topics included XR in the sports fan experience, how various reality apps might be used by soldiers, and the best ways to make your own VR apps.  

XR is a kind of mix of AR and VR — a mostly- or fully-rendered virtual world that’s tied to the environment around it. As this was a virtual conference, one panel — “XR at a Crossroads: Maintaining Empathy” — took place in the XR environment itself, with avatars of the panelists inviting one another to their environments. Meanwhile, a press preview before the event featured a virtual tour of Austin’s Red River Cultural District. 

Beyond those fully immersive gee-whiz events, plenty of standard Zoom-style panels and keynotes looked at a wide variety of topics dealing with the intersection of technology and just about everything, including business and specifically, retail. Here are the highlights. 

‘In-store’ takes on new meaning after COVID-19. 

On the conference’s first day, a panel was held on “Immersive Retail: Connected Shopping in a New Era.” Moderated by Kevin O’Malley of TechTalk Studio, the panel included Tony Parisi, the AR/VR Ad Innovation head of Unity Technologies, and Silke Meixner, digital strategy partner with IBM Global Business Services.  

The panelists shared their thoughts on what the retail sector can learn from the experience of the pandemic, and how it can move forward.  

Parisi is considered a leading figure in the development of virtual reality, and his company, which is best known for its video game development software, has spent the last few years looking at using 3D technology to drive sales online, often by incorporating augmented and virtual reality (VR) technologies. In terms of that being applied to retail, he said, what was seen by many as a luxury until recently was made into more of a necessity after stores were suddenly forced to close due to the pandemic. 

“So now imagine 3D digital twins of physical items — everything from a complex item like a car, which would be a very considered purchase if you did it online, to something simple like a piece of consumer electronics or a home appliance,” Parisi said.  

Rendering of companies’ products virtually, in a way that can be included in advertising and also social sharing, is a big component of what Unity is doing with retail.  

“Imagine all those things having a 3D equivalent, not just an image, and a consumer being able to interact with and learn more about those products, and possibly share those with their friends,” he said. “All of the technologies are now being looked at, with a lot of scrutiny, to see if they can help sell products. And early returns are looking pretty good.”  

The company’s eponymous gaming engine has already been used by retailers such as Shopify, Ikea, Houzz, and others to build “interactive try-ons of products.”  

The early adopter gets the worm. 

Fellow panelist Meixner shared what her retail clients at IBM’s business and technology consulting division have been telling her, agreeing that robust virtual 3D shopping experiences have begun to move from “something nice to have” to something more essential.  

Those immersive ideas, in the pandemic, have become “almost overnight, top of the agenda” for marketers she works with.  

“The question [is]: Will this be temporary, or will this change ultimately how we interact as brands with our consumers?” Meixner said. “The answer that we give to our clients, across different sectors, is that it’s here to stay.” 

Meixner went on to say that the retail environment has been a “pioneer” for such technologies, especially with furniture, as the technology allows customers to visualize the items in their home through AR apps that make use of their smartphone camera viewfinders. But there are many other potential applications.  

“A lot of the retail industry is looking into the omnichannel experience to be as seamless as possible, so you might in your pre-shopping experience look and research, but immediately you might then want to see what it looks like in the virtual environment,” she added.  

Parisi also spoke of the success of retailers who innovated on the digital front early.  Many of these early adopters were able to better weather the pandemic than those who did not. After all, a long list of retailers ended up in bankruptcy during the pandemic, while others —  including Fry’s Electronics, Modell’s Sporting Goods,  and Lord & Taylor — went out of business altogether.  

“Folks who were already planning on a certain amount of digital transformation have managed to find ways to reach their customers during this terrible period. Those that did not, maybe the writing was on the wall for a lot of these retailers anyway.”  

The panelists also discussed the ways that gaming technology has influenced retail technology — and how the sales experience has migrated to video games, where in-game purchases and upgrades are integral to the business model of massively popular online “free-to-play” games such as Fortnite and Roblox.  

There was also talk of the far future of retail.  

“I don’t think stores are gonna go away,” Parisi said. “Especially right now. I think we all realize what we are missing, being able to go into a physical venue to the extent that we would like…. that said, I think they are going to transform.” Such a transformation could take many forms — including AR and VR — but will at the very least involve applying the lessons learned during the pandemic to a future when stores are open.