Like any nascent technology, virtual and augmented reality lack an “approachability” — a concrete applicability that can complement the operations of the everyday business. It’s all well and good for Facebook to get excited over the many ways it can take advantage of Oculus Rift, but for more financially constrained companies who have to think sensibly about where their limited funds get invested, VR’s appeal has yet to become fully formed.
Key word: “yet.” There are companies that are already sold on VR’s potential, and they’re evangelizing the technology to the brands, advertisers, and business owners that could soon be bringing it to the local level. At the LOCALCON conference in London last week, Amplified Robot CEO Steve Dann gave a keynote address on VR’s practical uses for the retail industry. VR is steadily “climbing up the slope of enlightenment,” Dann said, and it’s in our best interest to familiarize ourselves with it, as it will be “a part of everybody’s life in a couple years.”
VR has existed for more than two decades, and now the rest of the technology landscape has matured enough for its widespread adoption. According to Dann, 2016 is the year of VR. With big tech companies, apparel brands, and retailers touting its capabilities and trying it on for size, many aspects of a consumer’s online experience will be touched by virtual or augmented reality.
VR is the more immersive of the two, a full-on transportation into a digital realm. AR is the addition of digital features to the physical world, seen by viewing an environment through the lens of a device like a phone or tablet. Dann gave examples of both technologies in action. Hiking shoe company Merrell brought a VR system to the Sundance festival earlier this year, creating a program around the launch of a new shoe that allowed users to test the product on different kinds of virtual terrain.
Then there’s what Amplified Robot itself is developing. Dann’s company, founded in 2014, describes itself as a studio designed to “explore how emerging technologies can be applied to the creative workflow.” Amplified Robot has been working on an app called iBalloon, which allows users to see animated balloons when they scan their mobile device over the physical environment they’re in, like a retail store. Users can earn rewards points and discounts when they find and pop the balloons.
“This encourages footfall and dwell time and enhances the shopping experience,” Dann said. “And we can track smartphone usage [through the app], so we get to know exactly what people like and build up background knowledge and context.”
According to Dann, AR is especially primed for retail. While Merrell’s VR machine isn’t something many brands can do, an app like iBalloon is easier to conceptualize. AR “solves real problems for shoppers and retailers,” Dann said. “[Main street] is going to go, shopping malls are going to go. People aren’t buying as much in the shops — they’re going online or on mobile. This is a problem for retailers with expensive bricks-and-mortar to maintain.” Leveraging mobile tech in a physical store could be a solution.
There’s always a reluctance to embrace new technology, Dann admitted. “But the wave is starting to build now…There’s a great arsenal of what you can attach VR to.”
Annie Melton is Street Fight’s news editor.