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How VR makes it possible to sell things that don’t exist

Ever since the earliest cave people began selling pet rocks and fancy-looking sticks to other cave people (or whatever it was that cave people bought and sold to each other), the formula for selling things has been pretty much unchanged: you make something, you show it to people, and ask if they want to buy it.

So how, exactly, do you sell something that doesn’t actually physically exist? Or at least, how do you do it in 2017 and not face accusations of being a snake oil salesperson (or worse, an outright scammer)?

New Zealand boat manufacturer Stabicraft is tackling that by pioneering the use of virtual reality to market its product to customers at one of North America’s largest boat shows. Customers at the Seattle Boat Show will be able to don a VR headset, climb on board a floating Stabicraft 1550 and enjoy an immersive and interactive experience, taking the controls on open water, walk around and try out different colours and optional fittings.

Stabicraft CEO and founder Paul Adams says the company is the first to develop an experience of this kind within New Zealand’s marine industry. “We had customers asking to see this particular model, but it wasn’t in production in time to ship to the show. We spotted the potential of VR technology to break down the barrier of distance between the company and our markets such as North America.”

Stabicraft approached Invercargill-based software development and technology company Digital Stock to help them out with the VR experience. “What Digital Stock has produced is mind-blowing,” says Adams. “It is incredible how real it is, a complete immersive and interactive experience without distraction, allowing customers to validate some key factors such as size, shape, vision prior to making any purchase decisions. Having the ability to give customers a VR ride is a perfect solution, much more powerful than a brochure or website.”

Digital Stock director Jim Dowling says while VR is not new as a technology, it’s in its very early stages of shifting from gaming to more explicitly commercial uses. “We can do a lot with VR,” he explains. “It has two key practical uses in a commercial setting, as a sales and marketing tool and as a way for teams in design and production to test concepts and prototypes.”

Stabicraft isn’t the only company using VR to sell a product to consumers before it’s actually made. Jaguar Land Rover showrooms throughout Aotearoa plan to install VR headsets in the next few months to let prospective buyers get behind the wheel – without any risk of accidentally getting into a fender-bender. Even before vehicles are available, retailers will be able to connect customers to a virtual tour where they can see and interact with a life-size model through a VR headset. Using the latest digital technology and animations, the headset will take customers on a journey “under the hood” to explain the technical features of the vehicle.

The VR experience also will enable the customer to explore the vehicle’s interior in 360 degrees from different viewpoints. A tablet version of the experience is also available if customers want to remind themselves or obtain more details when talking through options with the retailer.

Jaguar Land Rover VR Experience.

Steve Kenchington, New Zealand general manager of Jaguar Land Rover, says it will give vehicle buyers an entirely new retail shopping experience. “The level of innovation and sophistication available in today’s new vehicles means the purchase process requires increasingly higher levels of customer involvement,” he says. “This technology will help us better educate buyers on a range of vehicle features including how they are protected in the event of an accident for example. It’s the future of automotive retailing.”

In addition to New Zealand, Jaguar Land Rover will roll out the VR Experience across more than 1,500 retailers in 85 markets, localised into 20 languages. The company trialled the technology during the launch of the F-PACE SUV last year, and plans to implement it with each new vehicle launched in 2017, starting with the Land Rover Discovery.

VR is also being used to sell far more than boats and cars. ApartMint real estate in Auckland is the first in the country to use VR to showcase “freehold” residential apartments to prospective buyers. At the company’s Ponsonby showroom, prospective clients can take a 360-degree VR tour of some of the apartments in ApartMint director Craig Watkins’portfolio, without having to physically step foot inside. One of the many advantages of this technology for home buyers is that it offers a more accurate sense of the space and layout, as opposed to a two-dimensional floor plan.

Outside of Aotearoa, Chinese online retail behemoth Alibaba allows people to shop in VR with its Buy+ virtual shopping experience. The IKEA VR Experience uses the Unreal Engine 4 from Epic Games and lets people see how Ikea furniture would look in a room without actually having to buy the furniture – all they need is an HTC Vive.

IKEA VR Experience.

The point is, VR is moving beyond just fun and games (and porn), and changing the way we buy and sell stuff to each other. As with any technology, it remains to be seen how quickly consumers embrace it – or if it’ll have a momentary flash of success before slowly fading into obscurity like 3D movies have. But that seems somewhat unlikely. Just as the things we buy and sell have come a long way from the days of pet rocks and fancy sticks, so too have the ways in which we buy and sell things – VR is just the latest incarnation of that.

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