Shopping in VR: It was built, and they never came
Consumer shopping in persistent, online virtual reality was supposed to be a big thing of the future. In the 1990s large scale online shopping malls were constructed, awaiting thousands of visitors, unrestricted by physical location to come flocking in.
We are still waiting, and those online virtual malls still for the most part, still exist. They also still sit empty, awaiting a shopping public that never came. Some of them have big name shops in them too, as well as smaller firms. Some won awards for their design, others for innovation. Yet, they are all but unused. Monolithic structures in cyberspace, temples of an unworshipped religion.
What Went Wrong?
To begin to examine what went wrong with the plan for shopping in VR, and thus, begin to mend the plan, we first have to consider what shopping is; for most people.
Shopping can be split into two distinct categories.
Shopping for Food
You have grocery shopping, in which most people tend to prefer to get it done and over with quickly - hence the popularity of online shopping websites that give you lists of items, and a shopping basket, basically as a database interface. It bypasses the experience of picking up umpteen food items, all in pre-packaged, identical looking cases, then standing in a long line at the check out for half an hour, fighting your way out of the car park and going home.
Few, if any shoppers actually enjoy this kind of shopping. It is just a chore to be dealt with, the weekly shop. It is for this reason the minimalist shopping websites have been so successful - they remove much of the chore from the chore.
Shopping for Pleasure
Pleasure shopping is a very different experience. It occurs when you go shopping for clothes, ornaments, gizmos and gadgets, or flowers and shrubs. Choice matters. How it looks, how it functions, how things work together. Does it fit, is it your style?
Shopping for pleasure becomes a group social experience. Nine times out of ten you probably don't even buy anything at most of the shops you visit. It often becomes a day long experience. Or at least several hours of social fun.
Most large stores and shopping districts also have one thing VR malls do not - functioning restaurants, winebars, bakeries, pubs, fast food outlets and sandwich shops. When you go out shopping and are out a long time. How often do you not go to one of these for a meal, or snack? Eating out as part of a group whilst you shop?
All these and many more besides make up the social experience that is shopping. It is that social experience - trying things out before you buy. Seeing smelling, tasting, hearing, feeling, and sharing products, testing them out, settling down for shared food, and enjoying the experience immensely. This is shopping. This is the capability VR malls need, befpore they can become true competitors.
The good things about VR Malls
Virtual Reality based malls do have some things right, already:
How do you FIND a VR mall? Before you even begin to shop in one, you have to find it. This, straight away highlights a massive problem that must be addressed.
Most VR malls are designed logically from an architect's point of view, and a controlling manager's point of view. They are rarely, if ever, designed logically from a shopping experience point of view.
The world wide web owes it's success to the easy availability to everyone, the standardised (mostly) approach that ensures everyone sees similar content, and the sprawling ability of any site able to link seamlessly to any outside server.
VR malls don't have that. Most of them are locked away on proprietary systems, only accessible if you sign up to a service first, then navigate within that server to a VR mall, running proprietary VR software, that is limited to the capabilities of only one set of technologies, and allows no outside influence in.
Such a walled garden approach may seem a logical extension of the controls of physical malls, and give much more say so to the management, but, what in effect it actually does is to take power away from the consumer. When this happens, and the consumer is repeatedly told they cannot do this, that, and the other, as the software does not support it, most will vote with their feet and leave.
You thus have these grandiose structures, standing empty, as they do not allow enough freedom for the customer - or for the store - to promote a good experience for both. All the power is with the mall management.
A Better way
A better approach is to have a more permissive technology model. Don't lock the mall up in proprietary systems. Yes, it requires 3D VR display algorithms and a graphics engine to display, but there is no reason to lock everything under one company's control.
A better model may well be to use the web's mentality where all the mall controls is the central area of the mall, it's design and the ability to assign shop fronts, and thus 3D links to shop areas elsewhere on the net.
With individual shops again, the same 3D engine used, but allow user created plugins to shop server software, expanding and upgrading the technology as much as each shop admin chooses. Only this way will shop tech departments find ways to expand the potential well beyond the mall management's initial vision, competing with one another for the best experience for the shopper - and thus bringing more to the mall.
It's a harder path, more challenging for the central administration than the one taken to date, and does not have the same guarantees of watertight engine security. For example, it would be far more likely for exploits to be found that6 gave individual shops more floorspace than they were paying the mall development firm for, and there would have to be internal policing between the virtual mall and the shops.
On the flipside of this increased workload, the malls would, for perhaps the first time, have a real chance of generating custom, and return shoppers, bringing income to their patrons, allowing shoppers to mingle with other shoppers, and truly beginning to fulfill the vision of a social shopping experience online.