The past decades have seen a dramatic decline in traditional retail spaces as more people shift towards online shopping. So much so, that empty shops and malls have become a common sight, especially in smaller cities in the US and UK.
Millennials account for more than $1 trillion in U.S. consumer spending, yet they spend differently than previous generations, valuing experiences over possessions, and meaning over money. This why we’ve seen the shopping malls sector being both literally and figuratively demolished by the Millennial generation. Credit Suisse estimates that by 2022, 1 out of every 4 malls in the US could be out of business. This means an average of 8,600 closures in 2017 alone.
As Harvard Business professor Leonard Schlesinger reminds us, “malls were built for patterns of social interaction that increasingly don’t exist.” They made shopping efficient in a time of suburban sprawl. But then came the Internet, Amazon.com, mobile phones, and apps. One-click shopping with free same day delivery is pretty damned efficient.
Where retail used to be about places, therefore, the emphasis has now shifted towards experiences and non-repeatable moments, hence the enduring popularity of live concerts, sports matches, and luxury shopping.
“Places for bigger groups socializing or engaging with something are dying: bars, night clubs, shopping malls too. Groups of people enjoying social interaction are getting smaller. People are either on their way or at home and lots of social interaction happens online, in smaller groups normally – not at real spaces any more,” says Jonathan Nowak Delgado, cofounder of German-based startup HolodeckVR, which has been developing hybrid sensor technology allowing for up to 100 users to share a stadium-size arena at once. The idea behind it is to have 10 people or more interacting socially in the same physical/virtual space, and this social/spatial context applied to VR is what makes it a particularly compelling proposition.
In a 1998 article, B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore coined the term “Experience Economy”, to?refer to the premise that successful businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that with memory themselves becoming the products.
Immersive technologies have the potential to do just that, by bridging the gap between bricks-and-mortar and online retailing, and bringing together the best of the digital and physical worlds. Location-based VR can present a way to extend and amplify the shopping experience.
That scenario would see derelict or declining retail outlets transformed into attractions in their own right –shopping portals where customers can access products and experiences that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. This could well prove a lifeline for local economies struggling to adapt to the new digital economy.
Human-centered design (HCD) is a methodology? for creating new services and experiences that?resonate meaningfully with customers, and according to Delgado, this approach is key for creating compelling content for platforms such as HolodeckVR.
When I spoke to Jeff Burton, cofounder of Electronic Arts and advisor to HolodeckVR at the Pioneers conference in Vienna earlier this year, he was enthusiastic about a range of applications for the holodeck, specially around education:
“A Holodeck classroom is the dream of any school kid wanting to fly through the solar system, roam through ancient Pyramids or walk with the dinosaurs. That’s the future of education without any doubt.”
In a commercial retail/entertainment scenario, not only would users in a small-town outlet be able to browse and buy a range of products and services comparable to the Dubai Mall, but access a range of unique and personalized experiences that would be impossible either in a traditional store setting, or on a website.
Considering buying a new set of golf clubs? Take them for a few practice swings in a professional golf course of your choice. Japan, Florida or Scotland, are all only a few clicks away. Shopping for a new kitchen? Stand in the middle of it and change the layout to your heart’s content, until it looks and feels just right. Always dreamed of shopping in Rodeo Drive but afraid of getting the judgmental “Pretty Woman” treatment from snobbish sales assistants? With VR nobody would need Richard Gere to come to the rescue at all, as each experience is tailored for the customer.
“Holodecks can save places and enhance moments,” concludes Delgado. “We offer the most precise economic free-roam XR tracking tech to date. Our holodecks are disrupting how humans are interacting in virtual and real spaces on an unprecedentedly large level.”
Many have been quick to dismiss VR as a solitary medium full of isolating experiences, yet this emphasis on human connection and socialization as a catalyst for economic recovery and growth shows how varied and exciting the untapped potential for immersive technology really is.