Are headsets the high street’s future?

Is this the future of our high street? Picture: Archant/Getty

Is this the future of our high street? Picture: Archant/Getty


It’s no secret that the high street is struggling – nearly 10,000 people have lost their jobs due to store closures already this year.

Shoppers on the high street in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYShoppers on the high street in Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But how can bricks-and-mortar stores bridge the gap between online and physical sales?

The answer could be augmented or virtual reality solutions, with major leaders in the retail industry already making moves to adopt the technology.

Norwich-based Immersive Studios has already worked on market-leading solutions, having created an AR app for Harrods in Christmas 2019.

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The Rose Lane-based company created an experience whereby users downloaded the app to be launched outside the iconic London store.

Is the future of the high street VR and AR? Pictures: Brittany WoodmanIs the future of the high street VR and AR? Pictures: Brittany Woodman

Through the app, objects around the store would come to life to lead the user through the store.

AR is also being used on a global stage - with Google announcing its next phase of AR advertising in June.

Google launched AR Beauty Try On on Youtube - part of a collaboration with make up brand MAC.

The project is currently in alpha and is available through FameBit by YouTube, Google's in-house branded content platform.

"I think AR is more likely to be utilised in retail environment because it's more accessible," Immersive MD Matt Martin (inset) said. "You're not changing shopper behaviour too much by building AR in because people are wandering around looking at their phones anyway."

The team has also worked on a VR campaign for Mazda, alongside colleagues at Lively.

The installation saw users get into a Mazda MX5 and virtually 'drive' the car thanks to an artificial 4D experience.

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"We went out to Iceland and the south of France and strapped cameras onto vehicle and then drove it around," Mr Martin explained. "We then modelled the car's interior into the video and filmed an actor from a first person perspective.

"Masda could then drop the car and headsets into a shopping centre or street, and you could get in and have the feeling of driving it. We built 4D in by having wind blowing in your face and rumble packs in the seat so the car shakes when you're going fast."

However Mr Martin said that the key to making VR and AR work in the retail environment is making it supplementary to sales staff - instead of making it a replacement.

"It's not about one being 'better' than the other because they're two different things," he said. "But it's valuable when it's used in the right situation - you don't want to use the tech to make them redundant, it needs to add to it."

Brand insight publication Adweek has predicted that conversion rates from AR adverts are set to perform at between 20 and 80% - meaning AR-generated content has the potential to be hugely lucrative.

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But how do retailers know it will work? This is where design and branding analysts Aitrak come in.

The Ipswich-based company has developed eye-tracking technology by combining human studies with artificial intelligence.

As a result it can tell businesses what a consumer sees first when they look at an image or piece of content, and how they continue to interact with it.

Chief executive David Bailey has recently begun looking at how consumers are interacting with AR and VR, and said: "Most retail customers are not "early adopter" technologists and so they don't really know much about VR/AR. As a result, they're unlikely to spontaneously put on a VR headset in a retail store or start waving their phone around in an AR display. And guess what, lots of retail customers just 
want to browse the store on their own, thank you."

He added that the more traditional retail customers also have two key concerns when using VR head sets.

One is hygeine and the other is 'exposure concern', with customers concerned about not knowing what is going on in the 'real world' while they are immersed in a VR alternative.

Mr Bailey (inset) agreed that AR has "lots of opportunity" in the retail sector - more so than VR.

"Today when you see a product on the shelf in the retail store, the only information you get is what's written on the packaging," he said. "However, AR would allow someone to 'scan' that packaging with their smartphone and then immediately get a whole bunch of additional information.

"Consumer interactions with VR and AR differ to physical marketing because the brand can create more of a guided experience for their product with VR/AR. For example, if I'm looking at a smart/connected product in a physical retail store, then it's very difficult for me to understand all the things it can do. I can see how it looks (and feels) but it's hard to get the whole experience/capability of that product. However, a VR/AR experience can be a much more guided and interactive experience, where I learn more about the product capabilities, benefits, and so on."

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