There’s an old and tired mental picture that a lot of people have about VR and commerce, which is of the “virtual mall” — walking from virtual store to virtual store in some sort of Second Life 3D environment, going over to items and picking them up with gesture controls and trying them on and all that.
I think that this is precisely the wrong mental model to be thinking of.
Back when people were starting to figure out how the Web worked, there was a lot of focus on “proximity” that mimicked the real world. Geocities was built on the idea of neighborhoods, each neighborhood related to a particular subject matter, and each site getting a numbered address. There was an idea of being “next” to other people’s webpages, and there was an ability to browse in the way that you would drive down a street looking at each building in sequence.
There were e-commerce approaches that would attempt to monetize webspace based on whether your site was positioned “next” to a popular site. This is similar to the idea of physical malls, where a few big stores drive traffic to the whole area and the smaller stores benefit from others browsing.
The reason why this existed at the time was that search engines had not advanced; there were maintained hierarchical directories of sites that were maintained manually. With modern search engines, we don’t have that same limitation. When we go onto Amazon to buy something, we aren’t clicking through hyperlinked image-maps of a store in some skeuomorphic e-commerce version of Microsoft Bob. We see text and quickly jump back and forth, in and out, open a bunch of tabs.
We teleport. We link to multiple places at once. We have gained something by doing shopping online that we don’t get in brick-and-mortar stores. When price comparing in real life, can you quickly hop between two stores? Do you find value in walking between different areas of the store instead of having everything a few clicks away?
I like systems like Janus VR because they acknowledge the modern Web-using person’s ability to jump around at will. However, I don’t see this as an effective replacement for our normal modes of online interaction, and I don’t think that VR commerce is going to look like this. Any effective attempt at using VR for shopping must enhance the experience, not try to mimic reality with all its disadvantages in an attempt at perfect fidelity.
For this reason, I absolutely dismiss the idea of the “VR store” in most cases. There may be some uses, like clothes shopping, where you want a virtual environment to be moving around in, but I think that getting that sort of body-scanning “fit” to where it’s usable and not troublesome and glitchy like a lot of augmented reality applications is more far off.
Now, I do think there is value in VR for shopping in the form of visualization of products. I recently saw some neat experimental work of using WebGL to show off products for Best Buy, such as a fridge and a washing machine.
Here’s how I predict that this can happen. First, over time, some companies will have special features for some products in their online stores, where you can click and see an in-browser WebGL visualization of the product, like the ones I linked above. This takes some development time, so we’re not going to see it in scale and done for every single product until 3D scanning becomes a lot cheaper and faster and better — and for many products there’s no additional benefit to seeing it in a 3D Web visualization (though for some it will be beneficial). Think of something like Sketchfab’s viewer, applied to websites that do 3D printing services. These are companies that already have the 3D assets to be able to show something — this is the main bottleneck.
As the consumer version of the Rift and other VR devices becomes more widespread, due to gaming, there will be improvements to these previously-existing WebGL visualizations to basically add a “go into VR mode” button. There are already some nice boilerplate projects that make it easy to support WebVR in a WebGL project and enter and exit VR mode with a button press. This will initially be a promotional thing or a special feature for a small audience, but will eventually be built into the 3D Web visualization libraries as a default “VR mode support.”
So the model I’m seeing for VR support for shopping is definitely not “walking through a virtual mall and staring at kiosks” simulacrum of reality. And it’s also not “looking at Amazon search results in a bunch of floating 3D windows in VR.” I imagine that the bulk of VR-enabled shopping will be navigation using normal Web pages, some of which will have 3D real-time visualizations with “VR mode” enabled by default. In these cases, you’ll be able to press a button, put on your Rift, look at the object in question from different angles, maybe see it in a sample environment, get a sense of scale, and then take off the Rift and order it from the site.
Item-focused VR visualization is the probable approach, not space-focused VR stores. Otherwise, we would have all already transitioned to something like Second Life’s virtual malls by now.