If 2016 was the world’s introduction to virtual reality, in 2017 we’re expecting to see even bigger strides in VR. A platform which began solely for the enjoyment of adventurous gamers is now expanding into other industries, as marketers realize virtual reality’s implications in enhancing the consumer experience.

Imagine viewing products in a department store without ever setting foot in the store—then imagine how great it would feel not to have to search for your car in a busy mall parking lot and drive home. Thanks to virtual reality, ecommerce businesses might be able make this dream come true sooner than you think.

VR as a Technology

The first known references to virtual reality came in the 1935 science fiction short story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” Back then it was described as a goggle-based virtual reality system with holographic recording of fictional experiences. In the 1990’s, gaming company Sega took a major step forward when they announced the Sega VR headset for arcade games, which would track and react to the movements of the gamer’s head. Although the product would never be approved for home usage—mostly due to the insufficient technology of the era—it made a lasting impression on arcade gamers. The Sega VR headset, though far from perfect, got the ball rolling on modern VR as it brought the burgeoning technology into the public square for the first time.

Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality

While both are very similar, it’s important to understand the distinction between them. Augmented reality (AR) is a live view of a tangible, real-world environment. In this representation, the elements are “augmented” by computer-generated sound and graphics. Alternatively, virtual reality (VR) replaces this real-world environment with a simulation. So think of AR as an enhancement to an existing reality, while VR is a total simulation.

The two are similar enough to be joined in the same technological discussion, and they are also frequently joined together in practice. There can be elements of a virtual reality experience that are augmented and vice versa. Technology wise, VR is typically delivered by way of a mounted headset and AR is delivered through a laptop or handheld device.

Why Has it Taken So Long To Arrive?

Despite being touted as the future of technology for decades, virtual reality has made slow yet steady strides towards conceivability. It’s one thing to create a product that is efficient enough for modern gaming; it’s another thing to create a product that will be embraced by mainstream users. In 2012, the founding of Oculus VR indicated a serious move towards improving the technology; but it was Oculus’ subsequent 2014 sale to Facebook that signaled the entrance of virtual reality into the mainstream marketing world.

How VR is Changing The Online Shopping Experience

Since 2015, VR has expanded its reach well beyond the gaming frontier and into online retail spaces, thanks to a steady increase in consumer favorability for the burgeoning technology.

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The goal is to take the traditional brick and mortar environment and infuse it into virtual experience, allowing shoppers to feel like they are shopping at their favorite store without actually leaving the house. Fast Company surveyed 2,282 consumers who have tried VR at least once, and found that 79% wanted to try it again. This is a huge indication of the continued expansion of VR in areas like gaming, but what does it mean for retailers?

A more ecommerce/retail-specific survey later revealed that an astonishing 66% of shoppers are interested in buying items using VR. That’s quite remarkable considering the technology is still so new. Granted this could be due to the idealistic nature of VR—in other words, it just sounds really cool. But it does point to a sense of consumer optimism which is necessary if big brands are to invest millions into research and development. So far, 75% of the top brands are on track to invest in VR within the next couple years.

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Since most of us have so many questions about everything VR, let’s learn from some brands who are making VR work today.

Here are a few…

E-commerce Businesses Adopting VR

  • eBay

Ever heard of eBay? The world’s biggest online auction brand has launched the world’s first virtual reality department store. Users just have to download the aptly titled eBay Virtual Reality Department Store app on their Android or iOS device, then purchase a VR headset.

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eBay partnered with Australian retailer Myer to create the virtual store, where users can explore upwards of 12,500 products—100 of which are available in 3D.

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Rather than clicking on desired products with a controller, users decide their purchases using “eBay Sight Search.” You can buy products merely by staring at them for long enough. We might have to start calling this eBay’s ‘Eye-it-Now’ feature.

Consumer feedback has been mixed thus far, but of course it’s still very early into implementation. The Google Play store has a 3.0 user review average for the app, with some consumers citing compatability issues in connecting certain VR headsets. On the flip side, there are several 5 star reviews where users rave about the product.

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  • Shopify

VR isn’t merely for the benefit of the consumer shopping experience. Shopify shows us how it can be used to inform the design choices of merchants and fashion designers. The ecommerce brand has launched it’s first virtual reality application, Thread Studio, which provides merchants a new way of examining clothing designs by taking them into a virtual design studio.

Rather than viewing a clothing design on a 2-D person, users are afforded a far more detailed first-person perspective via VR’s 3-D capability.

You can virtually customize a number of other branded items including hats, mugs, and coasters.

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Shopify is sharing their VR experience with industry leaders, and receiving positive feedback. Holly Cardew, founder of Pixc, and one of Forbes “30 Under 30” entrepreneurs, writes about trying VR at the Shopify Unite conference in San Francisco this past year and finding it quite impactful. Holly and others find Shopify’s efforts inspiring. Clearly a trend that other industry giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon will soon pursue.

Both eBay and Shopify recognize the ramifications of a 3-D user experience. The sense of virtual immersion could translate to prolonged shopping sessions, which could lead to an overall increase in sales.

  • Lowe’s

How does a home improvement store play into the VR renaissance? By showing users the ‘after’ product of their home design efforts.

The Lowe’s Holoroom takes consumers inside the redesigned “room of their dreams” by way of a VR headset. Dubbing it an “improvement design and visualization tool that empowers homeowners with an immersive, intuitive experience,” Lowe’s aims to encourage consumers who might be trying their hand at home improvement projects for the first time, giving them the confidence and motivation to see their work through.

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It’s also a move to cater towards younger shoppers. Lowe’s has made a concerted effort to reach this audience through Snapchat and Facebook campaigns of the past 3-4 years, and understands how VR fits into their appeal to a younger demographic.

So far, Lowe’s Holoroom appears to be working great for the brand. It launched in just six stores last November 2015, and has since expanded into 19. It’s even inspired IKEA to create a similar DIY-style app.

  • TGI Friday’s

The popular restaurant chain is trying something out that’s especially unique. In December 2015, TGI Friday’s in the UK set up a 360-degree virtual reality experience to help their customers experience dog sledding for the first time.

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Each table was supplied with an Oculus Rift VR headset allowing participants to be transported to Lapland Province, some 85 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They were able to “ride” in a sled pushed by virtual sled dogs, all while sitting comfortably warm inside of a TGI Friday’s booth.

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Friday’s had conducted market research that indicated a white Christmas would be a ‘festive wish’ for 43% of people. They also found that dog sledding is the #1 Christmas activity that UK adults wanted to try.

  • TOMS shoes

TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie has said that VR is the “greatest technology [he’s] ever seen.” The brand’s foray into VR takes consumers on a journey called, “A Walk In Their Shoes,” where they follow a shoe customer as they hand out shoes to an impoverished child in Colombia. Like eBay, TOMS set-up a viewing station near the beach to test out the idea. A giant shoe box dominated the surroundings at Santa Monica Pier, as CEO Blake greeted the excited testers. Among them, actress Lea Michele.

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This sheds some light on another major appeal of VR—the ability to enjoy experiences you otherwise wouldn’t have. From dog sledding to visiting the far reaches of Colombia, VR can take users into an alternative environment, playing into their wildest dreams and curiosities. Brands outside of eCommerce should also explore these desires in order to make the technology work for their audience too.

What Questions Should We Be Asking Moving Forward?

It’s quite exciting to imagine where VR will be in the next 5-10 years. Especially since it’s been making such serious strides in the past 5-10 years alone. At this stage, what types of questions should brands be asking? We thought you would never ask.

  • How Will It Benefit Your Brand?

Because VR is all about the user experience, think in terms of how it will improve your customer’s relationship with your brand and lead to a higher retention rate. Then more specifically, how will it be implemented? Will you use it purely as a means of improving your customer service reach? Conducting product demos for clients or conducting virtual, personalized meetings?

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The hospitality business is already finding ways to incorporate VR for improved customer service. Case in point, Radisson Hotels. Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group, the group in charge of Radisson, recently announced a state-of-the-art VR interface called Radisson Blu. Designed to help customers interact with their hotel regarding booking, room changes, and fielding typical customer service questions, this is a huge step towards improving customer service and a sign of how many hospitality brands will likely incorporate VR. The hope is to turn around the negative connotation of customer service for good.

  • Will Traditional Ecommerce Apps Fall By The Wayside?

Not for awhile. But as more VR headsets are sold each year, the demand for VR-enabled apps will steadily increase. This potential for revenue growth will eventually become too enticing to pass up, as virtual reality products are expected to rake in nearly $1 billion more in 2017 than the previous year. Somewhere down the road, the market will entirely gravitate away from 2-D apps but it won’t happen tomorrow.

  • Do Brick And Mortar Stores Have A Shelf Life?

Indeed it appears that the brick and mortar shops of yesteryear are slowly fading away. But this has more to do with the rise of Amazon and other popular online competitors, not VR itself. Right after New Years 2017, Macy’s announced they were closing 68 stores due to lack of sales. Other large retailers who are shifting their focus squarely on ecommerce include JCPenney, Sears, Kmart, even CVS.

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These store closures create an even greater incentive for VR and AR manufacturers to ramp up the technology sooner rather than later. Already, 75% of Forbes World’s Most Valuable Brands have used VR or AR in an activation with customers or employees.

  • How Can You Offer Consumers A Truly ‘Unique’ Experience?

As the VR (and AR) space becomes increasingly competitive, ecommerce brands will have to unpack new and inventive ways to create immersive experiences for consumers. Remember, VR is less about the product itself and more about the user experience. The challenge will be to strike a balance between getting users acquainted with the product at hand, and making the journey thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.