John Goodwin has never been base jumping before.
But here he is, staring out over a craggy, sun-drenched canyon in Moab, Utah, lurching toward a gutsy jump off a 420-foot cliff. He instinctively searches for something to grasp onto as the edge gets near. But the red rocks disappear from under his feet as he declares, “I’m flying!”
Well, sort of.
Goodwin’s daredevil adventure is happening on a virtual-reality headset. In Manhattan. Inside a North Face store.
North Face is among a growing group of retailers testing whether virtual-reality technology — once largely thought of as a playground for gaming nerds — can help bring in big dollars. It is part of an urgent push by the retail industry to remake in-store shopping for a generation of gadget-addicted customers, turning their bricks-and-mortar stores into popular destinations offering experiences that can’t be replaced by online shopping.
For most of us, virtual reality has not registered as much more than a pipe dream. But last year, Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, whose technology powers the experience at North Face and has broadly helped fuel a resurgence of interest in virtual reality, or VR.
Now, companies are looking to unlock its possibilities. Tech giant Intel recently debuted a “smart” dressing-room mirror that allows shoppers to change the color of their sweater with a wave of a hand, while Marriott guests can put on VR goggles and headphones and be transported to destinations in Hawaii or London for an up-close tour.
North Face, meanwhile, has cleared a small area of its New York store for customers to don the headsets, which transport them to remote hiking, climbing or base-jumping locations they might otherwise never visit. The hope is that VR taps into shoppers’ deep aspirations and gets them excited about the great outdoors — and the North Face gear that could help them weather it.
Fledgling VR technology still has growing to do: Some users experience motion sickness while immersed in a 3-D world, and others have been disappointed by poor picture quality.
“The question is: Does it rise above the level of being a gimmick?” said Liz Dunn, chief executive of retail consultancy Talmage Advisors.
That hasn’t stopped corporate tech geeks from placing big bets on its potential. “At some point in time, as a result of all the markdowns and the promotions, [in-store shopping] almost became like a race and not a way to pass time,” said Natalie Kotlyar, leader of BDO’s Northeast retail and consumer products practice. “But with these in-store technologies, it converts shopping from the race to an experience.”
While looking through VR goggles, you’re presented with 3-D video that tries to trick your brain into thinking the surroundings you’re seeing are real. Peer over your shoulder or creep closer to an object and the image that you are seeing changes as it would in real life.
The technology has been around for more than half a century, and while it has been used by the military for flight simulation, it has struggled to reach a broad audience. The quality wasn’t great, and the technology didn’t come cheap.
That’s started to change, driving a burst of new, consumer-
focused experiments in VR.
At Lowe’s, the venture into VR literally began as the stuff of science fiction. Last year, the home-improvement retailer hired science-fiction writers to come up with futuristic innovations for its stores. That led to the development of the “Holoroom” — a destination for people embarking on do-it-yourself home renovations.
Shoppers build a bathroom on an iPad using thousands of options for light fixtures, tubs and tiles. Then they bring the iPad into the Holoroom. On the tablet’s screen, they will see a virtual version of their renovated room, one with the exact spatial dimensions and fixture configurations as their real-life bathroom. As they spin around or move backward and forward, the on-screen view changes as it would in real life.
“The hope is that the Holoroom is the first step in another way to make shopping more intuitive to people,” said Kyle Nel, executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Lab. “They want to see how they can change their space, and they want to see how before they make the change.”
The technology isn’t as sophisticated as other virtual-reality projects, Lowe’s admits, and is currently limited to creating bathrooms. That was the easiest room to start with, Nel said, because it is typically the smallest room in the house and has the most uniform setup. Nel said it has proved particularly appealing to general contractors, who can bring their clients into the store and show them exactly what their planned renovation would look like.
All these efforts are aimed at making the shopping experience more memorable — and something you can’t help but share with your friends.
“In this selfie generation that we’re contending with, it becomes a little bit of a form of social currency to have this experience, take a picture of yourself having that experience,” said Dunn, the retail consultant.
Capturing the images needed to create these virtual-reality experiences has not been easy — or cheap. North Face says it spent five days filming in Moab and in Yosemite National Park. Some of the footage was shot by attaching a 16-lens, 360-degree 3-D camera to a drone.
The company has limited its rollout to a few locations in New York, Chicago and San Francisco so far. While North Face wouldn’t divulge specific expansion plans, Director of Digital Marketing Eric Oliver said, “We’re not going to stop capturing content this way.”
In the meantime, it is still figuring out the best way to encourage shoppers to engage with the technology. It has found that many people prefer to watch the experience from a swivel chair instead of standing up, probably because they can spin around more easily and see more angles. (And it makes the base-jumping scene a little less scary.)
At North Face’s recent launch event in New York for the VR technology, many shoppers said the experience disrupted their sense of balance and tested their fear of heights — and they liked it.
“It gets you excited about going to those places — and the [North Face] gear is built for those places,” said Goodwin after his virtual sky dive.
For Gaby Gutierrez, who dropped by on a whim after a workout, the VR experience gave her a reason to return to the store.
“I’d definitely come back,” Gutierrez said. “And it makes me want to go rock climbing.”