Walmart could have you shopping in The Matrix

Discussion
Aug 31, 2018
Matthew Stern

While we’ve all gotten used to shopping from our living rooms, the experience lacks many of the advantages of being in-store. Some new patents from Walmart describe a VR experience that would address the shortfall by transporting a customer into a virtual, shoppable Walmart without ever leaving home. 

Walmart’s patents describe a virtual showroom and fulfilment system which would allow shoppers wearing their VR headsets to move around in a 3-D virtual Walmart as if they were physically in the store, Bloomberg reported. Wearing gloves enhanced by VR sensors, customers would be able to take items off the virtual shelves, thereby triggering the items to be shipped from an automated distribution center.   

This isn’t the only sign of Walmart’s ambitions in VR. Earlier this year the retailer launched a virtual furniture showroom that depicts products in a staged, virtual home. The showroom can be viewed on-screen as well as through Google and Samsung’s VR headgear.

VR, however, hasn’t quite earned mass adoption despite big technological advances and a big industry push. While retailers have begun to experience success with the use of the technology to let customers see furniture in virtual environments, high-quality headsets designed for home use remain bulky and relatively expensive.

There are safety concerns, too. Business Insider reports risks of staying in VR environments for too long, ranging from dizziness and nausea to seizures.

And the closer we come to mass adoption of virtual reality, the more that concerns once only addressed in science fiction seem less far out, such as losing touch with reality or even getting trapped in a simulation.

It remains to be seen if Walmart is truly planning on actually piloting this technology or simply patenting VR vaporware. Big tech companies have filed quite a few high-profile patents for speculative technology in recent years that haven’t come to fruition.

For instance, throughout 2016 and 2017, Amazon announced a bunch of patents for implementations of drone technology — such as drones deployed from dirigibles that would act as virtual warehouses — none of which appear to have into common use.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will using a VR at-home shopping experience as Walmart lays it out in its patent ever come to fruition? What factors will determine if home shopping via VR becomes a reality?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"It will only have staying power if consumers get some real, added value when using the technology AND if the fulfillment is well integrated."
"...like Amazon and other front-line retailers, advance patenting is pretty important for future possibilities …"
"Another issue for Walmart, who is going to spend time putting on a VR headset to buy low-cost commodity items?"

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20 Comments on "Walmart could have you shopping in The Matrix"


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Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

AR yes. VR, no. Too many people get nauseated and that would lead to lawsuits if someone fell in the middle of a shopping experience.

Definitely no.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

It’s hard to imagine that VR won’t eventually be an important and pervasive part of the retailer experience — but the operative word is “eventually.” Walmart is placing a long-term bet on where VR goes by securing these early patents, and I believe that’s a smart strategic bet. Ultimately, consumer adoption of VR will be contingent upon the availability of relatively low-cost technology that truly delivers on an amazing VR experience.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

It may come to fruition but it would not be for five to 10 years. Home shopping via VR may become a reality; an underutilized reality.

Charles Dimov
Guest

Never say never — but despite the excitement about this technology … it’s not mainstream yet. We all have access to VR tech, with an inexpensive headset and your smartphone. Yet it has not yet caught on as mainstream technology. People aren’t using it all the time. More importantly, shoppers aren’t really using it for common shopping, other than as a novelty experience. I like the technology, but we are still early in the adoption cycle.

At the moment consumers are still getting used to e-commerce and omnichannel shopping. VR will come. But the current state of the technology isn’t yet so compelling that customers are willing to mess up their hair to use it regularly. Hopefully, this will be a completely different story in three to five years.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

VR technology will be tried as a novel way to shop. However, it will only have staying power if consumers get some real, added value when using the technology AND if the fulfillment is well integrated with Walmart’s logistics system.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

We have been using this as the lead-in for our VR experiments for the past 25 years. But do we really think this will happen? Sure — will it take another 10-20 years? Probably. The technology is becoming easier and easier to create, but upkeep still presents a lot of technical problems. It might be a great game once or twice, but it’s not that easy to take part in and is much slower than you’d think for the participant. They’d get bored quickly, I suspect, until much greater advances are made.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

This is absolutely the future of shopping. Five years? Ten years? Not likely. But sometime sooner than we can imagine? Yes!

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
So let me start by correcting one small point. It isn’t the VR experience that makes people sick per se, it is a phenomenon known as latency — the result of how the brain processes “stitched together” imagery. Without going into all the boring details about the difference between stitching together square and rectangular images, trust me, it’s a problem that can be solved. True, early VR setups tended to induce a form of motion sickness, but better workarounds are being developed all the time. I guess a more fundamental question is to ask, if the current technical issues could be resolved and the price of high quality VR equipment was not a barrier to most households — in other words if there were no barriers to use — would people want to shop this way? My guess is, it depends on the category. Whether it’s VR, AR, MR or any of the variants of these technologies they have to offer a clearly defined consumer benefit, or people won’t use them. Want to see how… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Walmart must be just itching to bring its very successful internal VR program for staff training into the merchandising world. These occasional arm waving exercises provide the continuous signals that Walmart wants to bring new innovations to retailing. They are to be applauded for not hurrying into some offering that does not make economic or financial success.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Walmart is smart to file patents — because you “never know.” Let’s hope they aren’t serious about implementing them. VR technology isn’t going into use for shopping — or being widely used for it — for a decade or two.

After all, what is the added value to consumers? A search is a pretty easy way to find things. Certainly, online buying works far better than online shopping — but seeing products as if they were on a shelf won’t help that. My bottom line is that there doesn’t seem to be any consumer value.

My building mates have been creating surround video and testing VR for years now. We were just playing with the newest and best demo program. A decent experience for a game — but not for shopping.

As a last thought … The store is an excellent shopping experience. A VR store is a bad shopping experience. And online search is a great way to buy things.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

It is very cumbersome right now. Too much awkward gear and someone has to maintain that too. There may be a few products that would work well with VR but I think its day is not here yet. Being able to see the item in the room you are looking to decorate? Now that seems to add more value for my 2 cents.

David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
Vice President, Retail Marketing, enVista
1 year 4 months ago

VR doesn’t seem like a good fit for Walmart. The technology is still clunky and requires consumers to buy a VR headset. Another issue for Walmart, who is going to spend time putting on a VR headset to buy low-cost commodity items?

Walmart has been a technology innovator recently and I applaud most of their ideas, but I think this one isn’t a good fit for Walmart and it is still many years ahead of its time.

VR won’t become a pervasive shopping reality until the form factor become less expensive, less bulky and easier to adopt.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

This is how you can tell the digital immigrants (like me) from the digital natives (like my kids): I just don’t see how this is going to work other than for Walmart’s PR department. There may be some peripheral advantage, like my kids having a blast dumping over product in a VR grocery scenario, but in terms of real impact on sales; I doubt it very much. Again, my kids may disagree.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

VR will come to fruition due to the power of the visualization that it provides to the consumer. It might take longer than anticipated today to be universally accepted and used, but the power of being able to see products in an environment in three dimensions should not be underestimated. Walmart is smart to be a leader in VR for its customers.

The factors that will determine if home shopping by VR becomes a reality are the cost of the consumer equipment needed, how closely the VR software and equipment represent the real products and environment, and the ease of being able to “move around” the VR imagery.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

This looks like a case of Walmart hedging its bets. It makes sense for the company to be looking at the case for VR early on, identifying the opportunities and securing patents ahead of its competitors. I get the impression Walmart would rather be leading the charge than playing catch-up. Despite this I’m not sure this type of experience is going to come to light any time in the near future. To my mind the question is not so much about consumer adoption of VR and more about whether shopping via VR would be a valuable experience for customers. When do you reach the point where it’s better to go through this VR experience over just visiting a store or buying online?

Naomi K. Shapiro
BrainTrust

These days — and in the fast coming days of the future — anything is possible! Use of VR for at-home shopping will depend on user friendliness, benefit to the user, and the need of the customer for convenience and practicality over sociability and user fulfillment. Also, like Amazon and other front-line retailers, advance patenting is pretty important for future possibilities …

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Today, no. In the next five years, maybe. I just do not think the majority of today’s shoppers are going to go for it. As the median age goes higher, then it might become more of a possibility.

Have a good and safe Labor Day weekend everyone.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

Anything is possible, so I won’t say such use of VR will never happen. It will depend on how far from reality some people want to be.

I just object to the phrase in the first sentence of this story: “While we’ve all gotten used to shopping from our living rooms.” Who exactly is ALL? One hundred percent of the U.S. population? There will always be people who wish to emerge from their caves, er, living rooms to interact with other humans and the real world.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
John, I think we need to amend our definition of reality to include digital realities such as AR, VR, and MR which can be both perceived by and individual and shared by a community. Putting on an Oculus or whatever the next iteration of Google Glasses are doesn’t take you, “far away from reality.” It just provides a different way of experiencing reality. And, while I agree that any sentence that begins with “All,” is probably wrong on its face, people are getting more comfortable with the idea of shopping by app, etc. from their living rooms or wherever they are. I agree it’s not everyone, and probably not even close to everyone, and no doubt won’t ever be “everyone,” but directionally it becomes truer and truer every day. In a digital world it seems to me we may be forced to rethink our analog assumptions abut life. Many people have hundreds — even thousands — of “Friends” on social media, for example, that they may interact with frequently, but have never met, nor will… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

I’m not seeing VR shopping success anytime soon. AR/MR seems more powerful and is a great way to enhance the back office — stocking inventory, tracking products, etc. Walmart does use VR in amazing ways in its Walmart Academy by enabling realistic training scenarios, but for shoppers in the store the need isn’t hypothetical and the products are there on the shelves. Overall, it takes longer and makes shopping inconvenient (today) — including losing the touch and feel aspect of products. Patents last 20 years, I’m not sure these will be worth it — but I have no crystal ball. However, select VR scenarios like Lowe’s Holoroom might enhance shopping. The perfect example: try before you buy power tools at Lowe’s. But this is more AR …

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"It will only have staying power if consumers get some real, added value when using the technology AND if the fulfillment is well integrated."
"...like Amazon and other front-line retailers, advance patenting is pretty important for future possibilities …"
"Another issue for Walmart, who is going to spend time putting on a VR headset to buy low-cost commodity items?"

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