With its clunky headsets and project names like “Oculus” and “Morpheus,” virtual reality has so far been the realm of hard-core gamers and other early adopters of cutting-edge tech.
Now, retailers are jumping for a piece of VR’s promise to immerse its users in virtual 3-D video. (The industry even has a new term for selling through virtual reality: “v-commerce.”)
Tommy Hilfiger became the first major retailer to make virtual reality a fixture in its stores this week, offering its shoppers a virtual trip, via a Samsung GearVR headset, to the label’s fall fashion show in New York, which took place earlier this year.
The virtual reality headsets, which Tommy Hilfiger will start renting out at its Fifth Avenue store in New York on Tuesday, give shoppers a three-dimensional, front-row view of the show, held at New York’s Park Avenue Armory venue.
During a preview, a reporter donned a GearVR and sat a few virtual feet away from models as they strutted down a football-themed runway. Visible above was the cavernous ceiling of the Armory; turning around revealed rows of guests, almost touchable.
To capture the all-around image, Tommy Hilfiger worked with the Netherlands-based start-up WeMakeVR, which filmed the show using a 3-D camera fitted with 14 special lenses. The lenses allow the camera to capture video in 360 degrees both vertically and horizontally, with no blind spots.
Daniel Grieder, Tommy Hilfiger’s chief executive, said the virtual reality headsets would allow shoppers who might never attend a fashion show to view and shop the season’s runway styles. He also said the headsets, which will be installed in the brand’s biggest flagship stores in the United States and Europe, would inject Tommy Hilfiger locations with an element of entertainment.
That was vital to brick-and-mortar stores as they fight to stay relevant in an increasingly digital world, he said.
“These days, you can’t just wait for people to come into the store and try on your jackets. You have to provide entertainment,” Mr. Grieder said. “It’s not about turnover by square foot anymore. It’s about surprise by square foot, or newness.”
Tommy Hilfiger, which had sales of $6.7 billion in 2014 and is owned by PVH Corp, is one of many retailers exploring virtual reality as a sales tool as they compete with online sellers for shoppers’ attention. But actual adoption of the technology in stores has been slow, as headset makers iron out kinks and bring consumer models to the market.
Next month, Samsung is set to release the consumer version of its GearVR, which uses a smartphone as its processor and display. Facebook’s Oculus VR is expected to begin widely selling a VR headset next year. Sony will also ship its own virtual reality headset for its PlayStation 4 console, known as Project Morpheus, during the first half of next year.
But there are still plenty of reasons to question whether virtual reality, promoted for decades as the next big thing, will finally take off in gaming, or in retail. Reducing the discomfort that virtual reality can cause for some people, and downsizing the unwieldy headsets, are some remaining challenges.
Virtual reality advocates are quick to distance the technology from other fads that have since fizzled out.
“Cinema in 3-D was a trick, a gimmick,” said Avinash Changa, WeMakeVR’s chief executive. “But VR can be relevant. We’re applying the technology beyond the gimmick.”