The Mainstream Retail Future Of AR/VR

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Augmented and virtual worlds have long been touted as the future for all kinds of things — gaming, healthcare, travel, tele-learning. They’re experiences where being there counts in a lot of important ways, but virtualizing the experience and making it consumable digitally catches most of that in-person benefit, without the hassle of in-person travel.

Retail is perhaps an unexpected entrant into the augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) market, but it’s proving to be an area in which being there virtually can be seamlessly substituted for being there actually.

The applications for such technology are wide-ranging. Some apparel brands are working to make it easier for customers to enter their measurements, snap a photo and “try on” a new outfit virtually. Furniture and interior design brands — notably both Wayfair and Ikea — are making it easier for customers to upload their living room (or a photo of it anyway) and then digitally arrange and re-arrange possible furniture items and accessories so they can test drive their redecoration inspirations before actually committing to them.

This week, the list of retailers capitalizing on this new technology grew by one very recognizable name: Airbnb announced it wants to help convince clients to book stays by giving them virtual access to residencies before they pack their bags.

Changing How Guests Prepare

In a blog post this week, Airbnb gave the world a preview of its new augmented and virtual reality features — billed as coming soon to a booking near you.

“As mobile technology progresses, immersive technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality are giving us new and powerful tools to reduce the barriers to travel and the inherent friction that comes with it,” the post said. “Virtual reality gives us an opportunity to reshape where inspiration is drawn from and takes travel planning to the next level. It can also allow people to connect with their destination, host and co-travelers.”

Those digital explorations, Airbnb noted, could include 360-degree photographs that allow more detailed virtual tours of properties and locations that potential guests are considering for travel.

But, more importantly, the company said, VR and AR would allow its brand to more fully explore the concept that brought it to life — becoming part of the local environment instead of just taking it in as a tourist.

“Looking far into the future, virtual reality could allow guests to share more than a spreadsheet or email chain when planning travel together. Instead, they could share a virtual world together, perusing and touring destinations and home options while interacting in a more natural manner,” Airbnb said.

And How Hosts Can Help 

More than allowing guests to preview their traveling destinations, Airbnb also envisions a world in which hosts can leverage augmented reality systems that allow them to leave notes and instructions for guests in a more organic and useful way.

“It can also be stressful when someone doesn’t know how to unlock the door or turn on the hot water for a shower, or when they’re hopelessly lost and everything is in a foreign language,” the blog post noted. AR defeats those issues by giving customers “contextual, timely information to navigate these pain points. Just think how welcome pulling up a mobile device to get directions to [where] the coffee mugs will be first thing in the morning. Or, instant translations on how to work that German thermostat.”

Utilizing this technology could be a big change for the travel industry when it arrives — as of now, when exactly that will be is still unknown. The reality is that AR/VR, though amazing in theory, is much harder to get up and running in practice, particularly considering that guests and hosts are all bringing vastly different levels of hardware ability and background understanding to the concept of digitally created or enhanced worlds. It is telling that one of Airbnb’s descriptions for use includes the phrase “far into the future.”

But the innovative move demonstrates that Airbnb is getting serious — as are lots of retail brands, not to mention the mobile technology players that power the ecosystem by building the pocket-sized super computers that will make all of this possible. Those big investments in AR and VR from the likes of Apple and Google have — as of yet — not turned up that killer use case, though the potential is there.

Retail may just sneak up and be the dark horse that pushes the AR/VR movement from niche play to mainstream tool.