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How retail stores are using virtual reality to make shopping more fun

Brendon Moran, visiting from New York, tries out a virtual reality headset for the first time as his family shops for shoes recently at the Toms store in Los Angeles. Other retailers hooking customers up to virtual reality devices to boost sales are Lowe’s, Ikea and North Face.
Brendon Moran, visiting from New York, tries out a virtual reality headset for the first time as his family shops for shoes recently at the Toms store in Los Angeles. Other retailers hooking customers up to virtual reality devices to boost sales are Lowe’s, Ikea and North Face.
Published Apr. 21, 2016

LOS ANGELES

The next item you try on at the mall might be a virtual reality headset.

No longer relegated to video gamers, VR is coming to amusement parks, movie theaters and classrooms. But the technology also presents a major opportunity for retailers as they try to lure fickle shoppers into their stores, particularly as consumers shift more of their buying habits online.

Already, Ikea, Lowe's, Toms and North Face are turning to virtual reality to sell products, boost their brands and make shopping more fun.

"Virtual reality is going to fundamentally transform the human experience of shopping," a report from digital agency SapientNitro said, predicting that it would "lift sales for those retailers who get ahead of the curve."

Lowe's has added a futuristic edge to the often teeth-gnashing process of remodeling a kitchen or bathroom.

In 19 stores across the country, the home-improvement chain has installed a space that enables shoppers to see a 3-D mockup of their renovation plans.

Called the Holoroom, the simulated space can be personalized with individual room sizes, equipment, colors and finishings. Shoppers can give Lowe's the dimensions of a room and fill it from a selection of thousands of Lowe's products.

Then they slip on an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to look at how all the elements play together. (An employee can switch out parts of the room while the customer is still looking.)

The design is also viewable at home on YouTube 360 with a Google Cardboard viewer, which Lowe's gives out free through on-site vending machines.

Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe's Innovation Labs, said the Holoroom helps nudge people over the biggest hurdle when it comes to a room refresh: imagining what those changes will look like in real life.

"If you think about the way people conceptualize remodels now, it's really abstract," Nel said. "They go and get a little swatch here and one there and lay it on a table."

But with virtual reality, people can get a much more "holistic" and immersive view of how a slab of marble or different paint color can change an entire room — drastically increasing the likelihood that they will go with Lowe's for their project, Nel said.

Virtual reality headsets mimic the sights and sounds you find in the real world, using a combination of motion tracking, graphics and algorithms. The next step for Lowe's is incorporating Microsoft HoloLens and Google's Project Tango, where virtual objects can be overlaid on top of real objects.

"You can stand in your own kitchen and overlay a fridge on top of your own fridge," Nel said. "It's uncannily real."

Down the line, as virtual reality becomes more mainstream and consumers buy their own headsets, much of so-called v-commerce could move away from stores and into the home. That means you could walk through a store and browse for new jeans — all without leaving your couch.

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But analysts say companies have to be smart about deploying virtual reality so that it's brand-relevant and doesn't feel gimmicky.