Customers are increasingly turning to their mobiles and laptops to purchase goods rather than stepping into a store. But in doing so they miss out on real-life experiences, from simply browsing the aisles and picking the ripest avocado, to trying on a potential new dress in the changing room, or smelling the latest fragrance.

Savvy online retailers have cottoned on to this missing link in the eCommerce journey and are experimenting with virtual and augmented reality to bring the shopping journey to life.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality has been talked about for decades, originally thought to revolutionise the gaming industry, but thanks to the technology found in a customer’s smartphone, it is slowly becoming a realistic option for brands and retailers wanting to recreate real-life experiences for shoppers. Facebook demonstrated the importance of the technology when it bought the Oculus Rift headset for £2bn in 2014, HTC launched a competitor called Vive this year, while Samsung produced the Gear headset, which is compatible with its Galaxy smartphones bringing down the entry point significantly. But VR can actually be as easy as popping your phone into a cardboard headset, like Google Cardboard.

Retailers are using this ever-more accessible technology to create immersive shopping experiences, with customers experiencing the VIP treatment of walking through virtual aisles of a retail store without any other shoppers getting in their way. Meanwhile car manufacturers can take customers for a realistic spin in the latest model.

But right now, there is significant adoption in the travel industry, because VR allows prospective holidaymakers to really experience the destination they are thinking of booking. As the price of the technology has come down, Expedia is looking at how it can produce 3D content to entice customers to the far corners of the earth. While Thomas Cook saw a 190% increase in holiday bookings after trialling a VR solution from Valtech.

Virgin Atlantic has also been working on VR with Microsoft, combining the technology headset experience with “real-life” extras, like essential oils being wafted under your nose, to demonstrate the airline’s first class experience.

Augmented reality

Meanwhile, augmented reality is more practical for retailers and easier to deploy than sticking an expensive headset on a customer’s face. With augmented reality solutions, customers' experience overlays virtual imagery in the real world through their mobile devices.

One incredible example of AR is Nintendo’s new mobile game, Pokemon Go, which launched only last week and has been downloaded more times than Tinder, and soon to surpass Twitter in popularity. Its use of AR to “catch” virtual characters which appear in the real world when seen through a smartphone screen, may just bring the technology into the foreground with brands and consumers.

While Pokemon Go may popularise the technology, Blippar is a British AR vendor which has been working with brands to help them engage with customers for the last five years. The technology identifies a marker in the real world through the smartphone’s camera, such as a cereal box, and virtual imagery is augmented onto the screen so the customer can interact with the brand, perhaps play a game in order to enter a competition.

One of Blippar’s latest project has been with Visa for House of Holland’s latest menswear launch. Potential customers in the audience of the fashion show were able to ‘Blip’ designs worn by models on the runway in order to buy the clothes there and then.

Other examples of AR in retail, include’s virtual changing rooms, which augments clothes onto a customer’s virtual avatar. John Lewis and Ikea have also dabbled in the technology to allow customers to visualise how furniture will look in their own homes. And Rimmel recently launched a consumer app, produced by Holition, which identifies makeup on people and in magazines or adverts, and then allows customers to try the look themselves with its mirror AR technology.

But there’s even more serious talk of this technology being used in business, such as in plumbing or construction to identify parts. Google Glass is a great example of the B2B benefits of augmented reality. Google have stopped producing the prototype, for many reasons – mainly because consumers were not ready to walk down the street with glasses augmenting information right in front of their eyes – but imagine how this technology could be used by an employee halfway up a ladder in a retailer’s warehouse.

The possibilities of this immersive new world are truly endless. 

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