For a certain generation, the phrase ‘Virtual Reality’ conjures up vivid memories of clunky, mechanical headwear, shoebox-sized pixels and groups of scared-looking children trying to outsmart a blocky, glitchy dragon. When the first iteration of virtual reality appeared in the 90’s, it was embraced by sci-fi writers and dismissed by everyone else. Since then, the technology has advanced considerably. Today we’re on the brink of a new wave of fully immersive, digitally generated realities, and we now have the devices to fully realise them.
However, some people have been enamoured with VR since its emergence. “In 1996 when I went to the Trocadero in Piccadilly, I experienced virtual reality for the first time and thought it was amazing,” says Philip Handford, Founder and Chief Creative at Campaign, a design studio he set up to “challenge retail conventions and bring narrative and fun into a retail environment.” His first experience with VR obviously made a considerable impression on him, as he’s currently directing a considerable amount of his energy into discovering just how seriously it will disrupt the retail industry.
In October this year, Campaign launched Campaign Theatre – essentially the studio’s research and development wing. Campaign Theatre’s first task was to see what brands made of the potential of VR and Augmented Reality – where virtual objects and images are projected into the physical environment. “It’s enabling us to test ideas, get feedback and actually move forward quite quickly,” says Handford.
So quickly in fact, that he fears many in the retail industry are entirely unprepared for the impact it will have on their soon-to-be-out-dated business models. “We got such a massive response from our first Campaign Theatre that we had all these brands asking 'So what do we do?’” he says. And what can they do? What new retail possibilities does conjuring up fully immersive, limitless environments allow for? How can brands utilise their new-found ability to virtually transport customers to any location on (or off) Earth?
The first most practical application that was uncovered by Campaign Theatre’s research was the technology’s potential as a design tool. “For a designer, being able to intuitively have a look at something you've designed, meaning you actually stand there and look at it, walk around it, get a sense of scale, means you don't have to guess what you're designing,” explains Handford. With Augmented Reality, designers can simply map a digital 3D model of their design to a physical location that can then be explored and examined as if it were physically present in the space. “[Designers] can progress much quicker and it helps clients by mitigating risk. To help inspire bolder thinking, it’s got a lot of potential, also in terms of prototyping, testing a design,” he says, “I think the applications of it need to be challenged both in store and online, and this is something we intend to experiment with.”
If the future will see physical stores evolve from purchasing spaces into purely experiential spaces, then store design will have to be considerably more impressive to stand any chance of luring in an increasingly demanding customer. If brands can get a true sense of the prospective space before committing to actually building anything, then surely they’ll be more willing to take chances and loosen those purse strings a little. “A Japanese CEO can come and see a site he's going to rent on Regent Street without having to actually come here,” Handford says. “This CEO could, from his office, have a look around the space, and then have a meeting or a conference call where he's actually transported there.”
Of course, the possibilities of VR and AR extend well beyond the designer’s studio. Philip Handford’s still tentative about the technology’s application in store environments and understands why sceptics might write it off as a gimmick, however as it becomes more widely adopted, and both the hardware and software become more powerful, affordable and practical, he’s sure there’ll be considerable use for it in shop environments.
He predicts those uses will vary wildly from sector to sector. “If you think about a travel agent as a retail platform, the product isn't there in front of you, they've just got glossy brochures,” he says. “But if they just pop you in a headset, you can be in Barbados just like that. Walking around, having a look and getting a real sense of what you're buying.“ He also believes it will have applications beyond simple immersion. “In a hardware store for example, if you're going there to buy your tiles, and you have a basic template of your bathroom, you could pop your headset on and just browse through the tile department,” he explains. “Someone could design their entire house there.”
When will this technology shift from being the sole property by tech billionaires or die-hard gamers and start seeping its way into the average person’s shopping experience? “You'd need to ask Microsoft,” says Handford, chuckling, “But you can see the potential for it and the direction they're going. I'd say within 3-5 years.” Which is very little time at all, and a lot of retailers, Handford feels, aren’t ready, “I think what will surprise people the most is the fact that we're going to see a lot of businesses go under because they're not prepared.”
According to Campaign, it’s not matter of ‘if’ Virtual Reality will totally upend the retail industry, it’s a matter of ‘when’. And with existing developments like HD smartphone screens and Google’s Cardboard headsets, the technology’s more or less here already. It all depends on how quickly customers and businesses recognise just what it can do. “Who knows if the uptakes going to be there,” says Handford, “but I think considering the potential of it, I think it definitely will.”
Words by Joe Iley | Twitter @JoeIley