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Your future Black Friday shopping spree may be in AR or VR

Retailers are trying to replace the static webpage with more interactive tech. Time will tell if they succeed.

Augmented reality tech from startup Obsess would let you conjure up a mini store on the go.
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Neha Singh points her iPhone 8 Plus at an empty section of the dark-wood floor by the entrance to the Techstars startup accelerator in Manhattan's Flatiron District.

The smartphone's screen at first simply shows the space in front of us, but then a small digital 3D pop-up store appears. There are three golden mannequins dressed in tank tops and high-waisted skirts, along with shiny cylindrical displays holding a military-green Gucci leather bag and a pair of black Louboutin heels. Singh then moves her phone closer to one mannequin to show me the detail and texture of a blue floral dress. the whole arrangement is basically Pokemon Go, but for fashion.

Singh is a former Google engineer and Vogue tech executive who last year founded Obsess, a startup that develops augmented reality and virtual reality concepts for retailers, similar to the AR demo she shows me. Working out of the Techstars co-working office, she's among a small but growing group of developers and retailers conjuring up a potentially more interactive future of online commerce using AR, which overlays digital images onto the real world, and VR, which provides immersive, fully digital experiences.

"The user interface for e-commerce hasn't changed in 20 years," Singh tells me, describing online sites' typical grid of products arranged against a white background. "It's great if you're trying to buy toilet paper, it's not if you're trying to buy fashion."

So far, both AR and VR have found an early audience in gaming, but they haven't migrated much to new areas like retail, where online and traditional stores are still just testing out the technologies. That means AR and VR likely won't change the way you shop this Black Friday or Cyber Monday. But as both technologies develop in the years to come and become more prominent in phones, they have the potential to alter our shopping habits and help retailers sell us more stuff online.

E-commerce sales still make up less than 10 percent of total US retail sales, according to the Census Bureau. Creating new ways for people to see what a sofa will look like at home or to view a pair of pants on a 3D model could boost that number -- and result in even fewer people going to brick-and-mortar stores.

"This going to bring it to the next level," Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Creative Strategies, said of VR and AR's potential impact on e-commerce.

But while AR and VR may be more interactive than a static webpage, they still don't offer basic things like the feel of a fabric or the exact fit of dress. Plus, the steep cost of many VR headsets has kept that technology from reaching the mainstream. Given those factors, it's possible a future where we strap on headsets to go shopping in our living rooms or to conjure up mini stores stores using our phones may never arrive.

Betting on AR

A few weeks before my meeting with Singh, I went up to a luxe penthouse apartment just down the street from the World Trade Center, where eBay was hosting a showcase of some of its newest technologies.

In one corner, Fred Zaw, a product designer for the company, showed me a prototype app called What's Your Worth. He points his smartphone at an array of electronics and video games displayed on a table in front of him. Then the app showed on the phone's screen each product with a colorful bubble floating above it saying what the item is and its price on eBay.

The app could someday let you simply wave your phone in a junk drawer to find out if something gathering dust is worth selling online.

Two new AR platforms for mobile phones, ARKit on Apple's iOS and ARCore on Google's Android, should enable significant growth in the number of AR apps and features. ARKit launched with iOS 11 in September, while ARCore isn't yet publicly available.

There are now a bunch of AR features available for shopping for furniture and home decor using Apple's ARKIt, with the list of retailers jumping on board including Ikea, Wayfair, Amazon, Lowe's and Houzz.

"Hopefully you have less buyer's remorse and surprises that this literally doesn't fit in my room," Wayfair spokesman John Costello said.

Along with helping customers avoid the headache of returns, these new features may also help retailers cut down on the heavy shipping costs of taking back an ill-fitting futon or bookcase.

Despite the cost of VR headsets, a few retailers are also dabbling in VR, especially for luxury products, where unique buying experiences can help draw in customers.

Mastercard and Swarovski in September teamed up with immersive-tech company Youvisit to create a VR app for shoppers to see luxury crystal home decor in virtual rooms. Also, Obsess worked with Vera Bradley to let customers browse the company's new bedding line in 10 stores using Google's Daydream View VR headsets, meaning the retailer could offer customers more products without needing to find more store space for physical inventory or displays.

A future of immersive shopping

AR and VR commerce may be in their infancy, but that hasn't stopped retailers from running away with some pretty futuristic concepts for the technologies.

For example, Marc Lore, Walmart's head of US e-commerce, at a conference last month offered a vision of VR shopping that involved getting transported to a campsite to shop for a tent. You'd even be able to walk around the tent and get inside it, and pose questions to a voice assistant like Apple's Siri or Google Assistant as if it's a store rep standing right by you.

"That is where shopping is headed," he said, "and it's not as far away as people think."

Some simpler ideas involve being able to easily change the color of a room's walls -- at least on your phone's screen -- without having to paint them (perhaps the wrong color) first. Wayfair's Costello said his company has considered a way for designers to scan an empty space, upload a digital copy and decorate it in VR.

As for getting a fit for clothing without having to try it on, Amazon may already be working on that, too. In October, it acquired the startup Body Labs, which makes 3D body-scanning technology and could someday help Amazon create a digital mannequin shaped just like you for virtual dress-up. Amazon, though, has been mum so far about its plans for the startup.

It's unlikely every single one of these ideas will work or find an audience. But some of them might, and help change the face of e-commerce from that simple grid of products on a white background.

"They need to think about it as, what is the problem we're trying to solve or what's the experience we're trying to enhance," Milanesi said. "Tech for the sake of tech is not going to work."

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