By Los Angeles Times,
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The next time you visit the mall you may try on more than a pair of pants. You just might find yourself putting on a virtual reality headset.
Virtual reality, or VR, is an imaginary physical space created by a computer. The space can be something entirely made up, or a copy of the real world. To experience VR, a user puts on a special headset with a screen inside. The headset makes them feel like they are inside the VR space, and lets them interact with it.
Until recently, VR was used mostly by video gamers. Now, it is showing up in many new places, including movie theaters and classrooms.
The big chain stores that fill our malls are also very excited about VR. As more people do their shopping online, such stores have been losing customers. They see VR as a way to help bring shoppers back.
Already, Ikea, Lowe’s, Toms and North Face are turning to VR. They are using it to sell products and to make shopping more fun.
For example, the home improvement chain Lowe’s has added VR to its stores. It is using it to help customers who are remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.
In 19 stores around the country, Lowe's has installed a space that lets shoppers see a three-dimensional picture of their renovation plans. Called the Holoroom, this VR space can be personalized. Shoppers can change room sizes and add colors and finishings.
Shoppers first give Lowe’s the layout of the room they want to remodel. Once the room has been recreated with VR, it can be filled with any number of Lowe’s products. Customers can slip on a VR headset to look at how all the elements work together. An employee can switch out parts of the room while the customer is still looking.
Kyle Nel works for Lowe’s. The Holoroom, he said, helps with the hardest part of remodeling: imagining what changes will look like in real life.
With VR, people get a much faster and clearer view of how a slab of marble or different paint color can change an entire room, Nel said. They no longer have to imagine what such a change would look like. “It removes five steps along the way,” he said.
However, VR is not just being used to make shopping more convenient. It is also being used to make it more fun and exciting. Stores see VR as a form of entertainment that cannot be experienced by online shoppers at home. They hope the added excitement and fun that VR provides will bring shoppers back.
The shoe company Toms put VR headsets into more than 100 stores around the world last year. Customers who put on a headset see a video of a trip to Peru. The trip was part of the company’s popular one-for-one campaign, in which it donates a pair of shoes for every pair it sells. Viewers see a schoolyard filled with children who are handed boxes of shoes.
On a recent weekday, Tyler Costin, 32, was shopping at the Toms store in Los Angeles. He slipped on a headset and soon felt like he was actually in Peru.
“That’s amazing,” he said, swiveling in his chair to take in the views all around him. At one point, Costin lifted his hand to greet the students before quickly putting it back down. “You want to wave back,” he said.
Earlier this month, Ikea launched an app that allows people who own a VR headset to experience VR shopping from home. They can look inside a virtual kitchen, poke inside drawers and change the color of cabinets.
Such uses of VR will probably remain rare for the time being, however. VR headsets are still very expensive and until prices drop, few people will buy their own pair.
For now, most companies will use VR to try to make shopping in stores more fun. If things go as they hope, more people will turn off their computer and head to the mall instead.