New technology could revolutionise the way we do our shopping and banking, but does the reality live up to the hype?
In April 2015, visitors to Westfield Stratford City went shopping in the future. They strapped on Oculus Rift goggles to view key fashion trends in immersive virtual reality (VR).
The experiment was part of a ‘Future Fashion’ installation. But was it genuinely a glimpse of what’s to come? Or another false dawn?
That’s the billion-dollar question. Or, more accurately, the $2bn question, which is the amount Facebook paid for Oculus in 2014. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg placed his bet on the assumption that VR’s second coming (it was invented in 1991) would change the world.
For Zuckerberg and other converts, VR is a revolutionary technology. They argue devices like Oculus, Vive, PlayStation VR and SamsungVR immerse users in an experience that’s utterly different from staring at a 2D screen. They say VR will transform many markets: starting with gaming, but moving to travel, education, work communication and retail.
Trevor Pollard, Vice President of Architecture and Design at Westfield, is a believer. Speaking about VR at the Money 2020 conference in June he says: “You have to try VR to appreciate how mind blowing it is. You’re present in a different reality and experience. A poster or TV screen or movie just won’t connect you in the same way.”
“Many of our clients value the face-to-face relationship with their Coutts advisors, imagine if we could emulate that very same experience, wherever our clients happen to be in the world”
Like Westfield, Visa is also experimenting with the technology. It has developed a prototype stadium preview that people could ‘visit’ in advance of an event at a physical location. At the conference Bill Gajda, Global Head of Innovation and strategic partnerships at Visa, says: “You can get a 360 view, choose a seat, check the sight lines and even order and pay for food.”
So what will that payment experience look like? In a WorldPay prototype, it is almost exactly like the ‘real world’. The user picks a virtual card and taps it on a virtual card machine. He or she can even tap in a PIN (though the numbers hover in space).
This might seem unimaginative, but according to Nick Telford-Reed, Director of Innovation at WorldPay, familiarity counts. “VR is a completely new frontier for payments, so we have to ease people into it. But I’m sure clever designers will come up with better prompts.”
Beyond transactional experiences, VR has the potential to alter the way businesses interact with their clients. “Many of our clients are often travelling and have busy schedules, but hugely value the face-to-face relationship with their Coutts advisors” explains Robert Hemphill, Head of Innovation, Coutts; “imagine if we could emulate that very same experience, wherever our clients happen to be in the world”.
Of course, businesses are not interested in VR purely to give customers new experiences. They want insights. At present, online stores for example can infer a huge amount from how we click. Imagine how much they could glean from a VR session.
Danny Lange helped to develop Amazon’s machine learning system. Now, he’s Vice President of AI at Unity Technologies. On stage at Money 2020 he said: “VR is the closest we can get to wiring the brain directly to the purchase experience. In a flat web session, we can only learn through your explicit interactions. In VR, we will know what you looked at and for how long, and we can associate these actions with emotions.” This could be extremely powerful for any customer-facing industry.
For many, these revelations about what VR could glean about the individual may be scary. But it can only come true if VR succeeds. The truth is, VR occasionally makes people nauseated. Headsets can be heavy and sweaty. And sales have been disappointing. Industry analyst Super Data reported just 6.3 million VR headset sales in 2016.
If VR is truly going to live up to the hype, people will have to get used to the goggles first.