The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), a set of technologies with early applications in industry, medicine, and gaming, has moved firmly into the consumer realm with applications in everything from retail and fashion to housing and real estate.
The early hype, seen in insider trade shows like CES, has been slow to go mainstream due to high prices, ease-of-use problems, and a perception of it being irrelevant to ordinary consumers. What is bringing virtual reality into the actual reality of the day-to-day consumer world is not exotic medical usage (which is nonetheless groundbreaking) or industrial R&D applications, which transform how products are designed. It's things like Sephora's Virtual Artist, which lets women try on lipstick and makeup virtually by uploading a photo of themselves into a smartphone app.
Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality in Retail
The retail industry is seeing rapid changes with an unprecedented wave of closings and bankruptcies, but while old-school retailers fall, newer and more innovative ones are taking their place. The key to success is innovation, and VR is leading the way. On the back end, retail apps that use VR to improve store layout and warehousing operations are improving the bottom line, but they are largely invisible to the consumer. What really moves the needle on bringing new technology into the mainstream is when it moves to the consumer realm. Toward that end, retailers like Ikea are leading the way with something much more visible. The low-cost Swedish furniture store recently opened up a virtual-reality experience in one of its Dallas stores. The VR app follows Ikea's earlier AR app, which allows customers to see how Ikea furniture would look inside their own homes.
Augmented reality and the real world
Unlike VR, which is a complete simulation, AR actually exists in the real world. It simply modifies, or augments, that reality toward a practical end, such as visualizing how a piece of furniture would look in an actual living room, creating, for example, further benefit for retailers like Ikea and for the housing industry in general. AR could, for example, allow a Realtor to show an empty home to a prospective customer, who upon wearing the AR goggles, would see it completely furnished with the items of their choice.
Visualizing house floor plans spatially has always been a challenge, especially for architects. Professionals may be able to easily visualize a house in their mind's eye from a blueprint, but clients often need something more concrete. Physical models have been used in the past, although those are limited and costly. VR is moving into this area as well, with lower-cost options and headsets that make those blueprints more realistic and provide features like virtual walk-throughs of a home before it has been built.
Moving VR/AR into everyday usage
On the hardware side, the technology is mature, and the development of VR headsets has progressed to the point at which they are now affordable enough to move out of the realm of specialized use to ordinary consumers. But as the hardware inevitably drops in price and becomes more available, the next step is development of content and useful applications. AR/VR is widely used, for example, by professionals in medical, corporate, industrial, and architectural settings, but the low-cost headsets are still limited by a lack of content and apps targeted at consumers.
One positive step toward consumer acceptance is the release of the iPhoneX and Apple's new ARKit augmented reality platform, which holds the potential to dramatically change how ordinary consumers interact with technology in their everyday lives. Apple's AR platform brings what used to be a highly specialized technology into practical, everyday use.
Successful use of AR/VR in consumer areas such as retail or real estate depends not on seeing it as a replacement for human sales staff but as a tool to enhance those humans' ability to better serve the customer. Rather than saying, "imagine," sales staff will be able to say "here is what it will look like." This will require some level of competence training so that staff are comfortable working with the new technology, but its use and widespread acceptance will enable staff to do their jobs better – and to better serve their customers in the future.