What is Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is best described through the moments—or rather the memories—of the things you experience when you have that headset on.
When I put on the HTC Vive and experienced virtual reality for the first few times:
- I played fetch with a robot dog in a futuristic laboratory.
- I threw a baseball cap into the sun.
- I leapt away from the low groan of a zombie behind me.
- I tried to use my virtual hand to scratch my real nose when it was itchy.
In virtual reality, I became an active participant in an environment completely removed from reality. And that’s what makes VR a wildly different experience from watching a movie or even playing a video game.
Unlike most forms of media, virtual reality blocks out the rest of the world in a way that doesn’t just encourage us to suspend our disbelief, but actually takes our senses for a ride and immerses us wholly in the experience.
From the outside, bystanders will see someone wearing a headset, waving their hands around, wearing a smile or a serious, focused expression on their face.
This is what VR looks like to people on the outside:
But to the person wearing the headset, they’re completely drawn into a whole other world, where they can actually affect and interact with their environment in a way that just isn’t possible in any other medium.
This is what they actually see:
It’s easy to be skeptical about virtual reality if you haven’t tried it—I know I was. After all, attempts at virtual reality go back to the 1960s, all of which just never caught on. But in the case of today’s VR, after trying a few different experiences, it’s clear why Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire the Oculus Rift virtual reality system in 2014.
There are two kinds of people: Those who think VR will change the world. And those who haven’t tried VR.
Words don’t do it justice. The best way to understand virtual reality is to experience it yourself. The second best way is to understand VR is probably to understand what it isn’t.
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What Virtual Reality is not
Before I tried VR, I had already formed an (inaccurate) opinion about what it’d be like. And after comparing my experience with others, I realize this is a mistake that a lot of people will make.
So before we go into the implications of VR, let’s clear up a few things first.
1. Virtual Reality isn’t a fad
VR isn’t “the next step after 3D movies”. It isn’t “like having a small TV strapped to your face” either. And it’s not “just for gamers”.
VR is an emerging breed of technology that will take some time to fully take root—like the automobile or even the personal computer.
This excerpt from Commodore Magazine published in 1987 illustrates the atmosphere of skepticism that tends to accompany new technology—in this case, the personal computer:
“Experts predicted that within five years, every household would have a computer. Dad would run his business on it. Mom would store her recipes on it. The kids would do their homework on it. Today only 15% of American homes have a computer – and the other 85% don't seem the least bit interested. There is a general feeling that the home computer was a fad and that there is really no practical purpose for a computer in the home.”
We can rely on technology to grow at an exponential rate—how well we adopt that technology, however, depends on many other variables. But unlike the smartwatch and other relatively new devices, there’s more buy-in around VR —from Google’s Cardboard, Valve’s Steam, Facebook’s Oculus, HTC’s Vive, and Sony’s Playstation VR. We can expect adoption to be a lot smoother and faster than it was for other emerging technology.
And that’s a good thing, because virtual reality isn’t an incremental step up in terms of innovation. It’s a huge leap forward.
2. Virtual Reality is not the same as augmented reality
Augmented reality (AR), as the name suggests, augments reality by applying a layer over your view of the real world. Like a heads-up display (HUD) AR enhances your perception—it doesn’t try to replace it entirely.
Virtual reality, on the other hand, removes you from reality and that’s what affords it a level of immersion we’ve never been able to achieve before.
And while it’s possible to combine the two so that parts of what you see are drawn from the real world and parts of it are virtual, the full immersion you get with “true VR” is what makes it drastically different from anything else you’ve tried.
3. Google’s Cardboard and the HTC VIVE are virtual worlds apart
There are essentially two very different VR experiences you can try right now.
One is affordable and accessible, consisting largely of 360 degree videos. You might have encountered these on YouTube or Facebook. You slot your smartphone into a Google Cardboard, Samsung Gear VR or other headset, fire up a compatible VR app and put it on. Your smartphone’s accelerometer enables your point of view to correspond with the movement of your headset.
Considering its incredibly low price, Google’s Cardboard headset isn’t a bad way to get a small taste of VR in its most rudimentary form. But it doesn't quite compare to the experience of true VR.
Riding a rollercoaster in a 360 degree video only scratches the surface of the VR experience.
To experience virtual reality at its best right now, you’ll need a powerful PC and over $799 USD for the HTC Vive’s headset, two motion controllers, and motion sensors. You’ll also need a dedicated room to set it all up in. But this takes the experience to a whole other level by adding environmental interaction, depth, and movement in a 3D space.
A Shopify Unite conference attendee experiences VR with the HTC Vive.
While 360 degree video is a step in a different direction, it’d be a big mistake to assume you’ve really experienced virtual reality if that’s the only thing you’ve tried.
The Future of Ecommerce in VR isn’t what you think
When we think about shopping in virtual reality, it’s easy to assume it’ll look something like the brick and mortar experience we’re already familiar with: Pushing a cart around, picking up the items we want to buy, taking those items to the checkout, but all from the comfort of our homes.
But that’s a poor use of both VR and the human imagination—especially when virtual environments present a blank 3-Dimensional canvas that can be filled with literally anything.
For example, instead of laying out your camping equipment in a cluttered retail space, why not showcase your products far away from any cities with a sun setting, a fire crackling, and transport your customers there instead of leaving it to their imagination.
VR offers a whole new way for brands to tell stories around their products.
Consider how effective video content is at holding up a mirror to consumers and helping them see themselves in others using the products they might want to own. Now picture what VR can achieve as it puts consumers in the very shoes of someone enjoying those products.
What’s more, VR affords consumers the ability to get a sense of scale with your products—something that’s always been difficult for even the best product pages to properly convey online.
Naturally, specific verticals will benefit greatly from VR, such as the furniture industry as consumers could view tables or couches in a virtual room for a better idea of how these items would look in their own homes. They can even customize these products, changing the color or the size, and see their choices come to life virtually in front of them—just a purchase away from being actually in front them.
VR isn't just for consumers
The role VR will play in the future of ecommerce won’t rest solely on the consumer’s side. There will be implications for business owners too.
While you probably won’t be managing your online store in VR, you might be spending a few hours at a time with games and entertainment. You’re going to want a way to stay immersed in VR so you don’t have to take off the headset for every text message, phone call or real world distraction.
The HTC Vive already connects with your phone so that you can respond to calls and messages with the headset on. The same could be done with order notifications, or support questions. A merchant could perform basic operations for their store while they are within a game or other experience.
VR can also potentially help business owners plan out the look of a retail space, or even visualize product concepts before they’re created. In fact, VR can do more than just show you the product in front of you. It could blow it up to show all of its components, and allow you to better understand how it all fits together.
This can be incredibly useful for training purposes, or even to show a manufacturer the intended steps to assemble your product.
The Metaverse: An inevitable social network in VR
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to VR is that—like television, video game consoles or your smartphone—it’ll be something that people routinely plug into to consume content or interact with others all over the world.
The hard-to-ignore question, then, becomes what kind of social networks will VR spawn? In a virtual environment there’s opportunity to interact with others in a way that’s even more “face-to-face” than a FaceTime video call.
This hypothetical social network has been dubbed the “metaverse” and, once realized, it will be a major tipping point for VR.
vTime is just one early attempt at a "Second Life" in VR.
Once a consistent, connected social experience is established—like Facebook or Twitter—it can then grow into a new channel for businesses to engage with consumers—like Facebook or Twitter.
Virtual Reality has finally become a reality
If you haven’t tried VR yet, I strongly encourage you to do so if you ever have the chance. Because one thing that will surprise you (just as it surprised me) is how good VR is right now—how easy it is to lose yourself in the experience.
When you consider the inevitable improvements that are to come for this technology, as well as the still-growing library of content for VR, it’s safe to say that—after decades of attempts—virtual reality is no longer something only found between the pages of a science fiction novel.
Virtual reality is now a reality.