Staff pose for photos in front of a screen showing total sales at over 168 billion yuan shortly after the end of the 11.11, or Singles Day shopping festival, at a gala event in Shanghai early on November 12, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Singles' Day is very noisy.
For days leading up to the shopping extravaganza that e-commerce giant Alibaba started eight years ago, text messaged promotions ping inboxes across China. A celebrity-glazed gala heralds the stroke of midnight, November 11, when $1.5 billion in online purchases go to shipping in unison. TVs bleat statistics as anchors chirp in persistent awe. A battalion of overworked delivery trucks and scooters take to the streets on tight deadlines. More than 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide belches into the atmosphere.
But inside Buy+, Alibaba's virtual reality shopping platform, remains an eerie calm.
The"immersive retail experience," at this early stage, is not particularly immersive. A 15-cent cardboard frame attaches your cell phone to your face and the speakers producing the same tinny audio as ever.
Nor is there much to experience. A small selection of the six participating retailers' merchandise has a virtually rendered presence. The virtual mall is an exposition as much as it is an actual sales platform. Many users just briefly wander in the inactive mirage.
In an augmented reality game, similar to a lo-fi PokemonGo, consumers follow a cartoon cat around the real world to unlock virtual items that they still have to pay for with real money.
A girl wears virtual reality glasses as she sits on a roller coaster simulator at the Wantong VR Park, which claims to be China's largest, on November 27, 2016 in Beijing, China.(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
But Singles' Day is valuable as a harbinger. The event is watched from inside China and particularly from abroad as a qualitative indicator: what will or won't drive sales in China's massive consumer marketplace for the next year.
VR and AR are what's next
And virtual and augmented reality is what's next. Ebay, IKEA, LEGO, Häagen-Daas have also made steps into virtual reality in retail. Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2025, the technology's application in retail will be altogether worth $1.6 billion, with 32 million users.
The structure of that future remains starkly undefined. At this point, no regulation, or even norms of practice, governs the use of virtual or augmented reality in marketing or advertisement.
The questionable ethics of Singles' Day, a nationally-celebrated materialistic conflagration, has only recently entered the public gaze. That is another omen of what's to come in China's retail market. Best practices for the newcomer mediums of virtual and augmented reality still awaits discussion.
Mike Evans, president of Alibaba group, explained in 2016 that the technology is intended to "move the relationship with the consumers beyond a highly transnational one." The entire process, none the less, funnels towards purchase. On the Buy+ platform, that action is performed by looking at a product and then nodding in assent.
Virtual and augmented reality will also "allow the brand to create a stronger bond" with those consumers, said Evans. That means fewer traditional efforts at community outreach. There is no longer a need, if a corporation wants to access a community, to be present in its area or employing its people. Nor would efforts at embodied visibility, like working with charities, schools, or NGOs, be as relevant.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma applauds shortly after the end of the 11.11, or Singles Day shopping festival, at a gala event in Shanghai early on November 12, 2017. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The norms have yet to be established
The gamification of sales is nothing new. Singles' Day is a testament to the way gaming and competing for the best deals can drive sales. Many shoppers fill carts for weeks in advance to get the jump on other buyers who might take the same deals.
But these sales tactics all operate within established norms, something that doesn't exist for the virtual or augmented reality. While the role these technologies play is still touch-and-go, that won't be the case for long.
"Like any other medium, connection doesn't happen automatically just because you put on a pair of goggles,” Nonny de la Peña explained over email. She uses virtual reality in journalism. Her work allows viewers to experience perspectives that they are often removed from: from conflict zones abroad or food banks across town.
De la Peña is currently working with PBS’s Frontline to compile a report on best practices for the use of virtual and augmented reality in journalism.
"It is such a nascent medium that we are still figuring out what might be different than other media,” she said. "For now, we are still looking to its predecessors to inform best practices and cultural norms."
At present, no such effort is directed towards the use of virtual reality -- which is often referred to as "the empathy machine" -- in advertisement.