Virtual Reality and Social E-Commerce: a Rift between Worlds?

by Julian Ursell
Published July 01, 2014

It’s doubtful many remember Nintendo’s failed games console, the Virtual Boy, which was one of the worst commercial nose dives for a games console in the past 20 years. Commercial failure though it was, the concept of virtual reality back then and up till the present day is still intriguing for many people considering what the sort of technology that can properly leverage VR is capable of. The most significant landmark in this quarter of technology in the past 6 months undoubtedly is Facebook’s acquisition of the Oculus Rift VR headset manufacturer, Oculus VR. Beyond using the technology purely for creating new and immersive gaming experiences (you can imagine it’s pretty effective for horror games), there are plans at Facebook and amongst other forward-thinking companies of mobilizing the tech for transforming the e-commerce experience into something far more interactive than the relatively passive browsing experience it is right now. Developers are re-imagining the shopping experience through the gateway of virtual reality, in which a storefront becomes an interactive user experience where shoppers can browse and manipulate the items they are looking to buy ( this is how the company Chaotic Moon Studios imagines it), adding another dimension to the way we can evaluate and make decisions on the items we are looking to purchase. On the surface there’s a great benefit to being able to draw the user experience even closer to the physical act of going out into the real world to shop, and one can imagine a whole other array of integrated experiences that can extend from this (say, for example, inspecting the interior of the latest Ferrari). We might even be able to shop with others, making decisions collectively and suggesting items of interest to friends across social networks, creating a unified and massively integrated user experience.

Setting aside the push from the commercial bulldozer that is Facebook, is this kind of innovation something that people will get on board with? We can probably answer with some confidence that even with a finalized experience, people are not going to instantly “buy-in” to virtual reality e-commerce, especially with the requirement of purchasing an Oculus Rift (or any other VR headset that emerges, such as Sony’s Morpheus headset) for this purpose. Factor in the considerable backlash against the KickStarter-backed Oculus Rift after its buyout by Facebook and there’s an even steeper hill of users already averse to engaging with the idea. From a purely personal perspective, you might also ask if wearing a headset is going to be anything like the annoying appendage of wearing 3D glasses at the cinema, on top of the substantial expense of acquiring the Rift headset. 3D cinema actually draws a close parallel – both 3D and VR are technology initiatives attempted and failed in years previous, both are predicated on higher user costs, and both are never too far away from being harnessed to that dismissive moniker of “gimmick”. From Facebook’s point of view we can see why incorporating VR activity is a big draw for them. In terms of keeping social networking fresh, there’s only so far re-designing the interface and continually connecting applications (or the whole Internet) through Facebook will take them. Acquiring Oculus is one step towards trying to augment (reinvigorate?) the social media experience, orchestrating the user (consumer) journey for business and e-commerce in one massive virtual space. Thought about in another way, it represents a form of opt-in user subscription, but one in which the subscription is based upon a strong degree of sustained investment from users into the idea of VR, which is something that is extremely difficult to engineer.

It’s still too early to say whether the tech mash-up between VR, social networking, and e-commerce is one in which people will be ready to invest (and if they will ever be ready). You can’t fault the idea on the basis of sheer innovation, but at this point one would imagine that users aren’t going to plunge head first into a virtual reality world without hesitation. For the time being, perhaps, people would be more interested in more productive uses of immersive VR technology, say for example flying like a bird.

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