Virtual reality and eCommerce. Sounds like an interesting combo, huh? Well, I thought it would be fun to explore if anything is happening in the eCommerce space and what the possibilities might be. But again, we are just in the beginning phases of VR, so who knows what is around the bend.
I thought it would be interesting to bring in a different perspective on the subject. Michael Tieso is Developer Advocate over at WooCommerce. His unique mix of expertise in eCommerce and a personal passion for virtual reality will help us look at it from both sides.
We chatted about:
- What Michael sees as far as VR creeping into the online retail experience
- What he has seen that he wishes customers could experience on WooCommerce stores
- If there are any products that VR might bring more value to
- Whether we will move to a more personal interaction with products via virtual reality
- How VR could affect our brick-and-mortar shopping experience
- What Michael predicts we will see in the next couple of years in this space
Lastly, I asked Michael about one of the most memorable experiences he has had with virtual reality, inside or outside the eCommerce space.
Bob Dunn: Hey Michael, and welcome back to the show.
Michael Tieso: Thank you for having me again.
Bob: Now, before we dive in, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Meet Michael Tieso, Developer Advocate at WooCommerce
Michael: Sure. I’m Michael Tieso, I work at Automattic, on the WooCommerce platform, as a developer advocate. I do developer relations for WooCommerce.
Bob: One of the reasons I’m bringing you on for this conversation is your background in eCommerce, but I know you’re incredibly passionate and excited over virtual reality, is that right?
Michael: Yeah, I think I even mentioned it in our last episode as well. It seems to come out in every conversation I have with people.
Bob: I’ve seen plenty of pictures of you with those tiny little headsets on.
Michael: Yeah, they can be quite large, some of them.
Do you see Virtual Reality creeping into the online retail experience?
Bob: Well, I thought it’d be fun to kind of get some insights from you, because you’re, like I said, in the e-Commerce space, and also you’ve been exploring that, experimenting with it. Let’s start with what you’ve seen so far, and how you see VR is creeping into the online retail experience, if it is at all at this point.
Michael: Good question. When I first got into VR, and for many people who first got into VR, it was all about gaming. Once I tried it in gaming—it was, like, couple years ago or more— then I tried other applications, and my eyes started opening on there’s way more to this than just gaming. There’s several other applications this could be used for.
It’s hard to imagine those things without trying it first, because gaming is where it first initially took off, and it just seems to make sense for video games; you can be in another place, time, you could be anything you’d want to be in this video game and have that experience.
But when it comes to other experiences, eCommerce, music video, and so on, there’s all these other things that perhaps you never really thought of. It’s because we’re still in early days of VR, and people haven’t really thought of all the things that they could do with it.
So everyone is still experimenting, “Can we do this in VR? Should we be doing this in VR?” There’s a lot of research going on as well, “What is this doing to our brains? Are we gonna get to a point where reality and virtual reality are one and the same, and what you experience in virtual reality will be a memorable experience, just like you have in real life?”
When it comes to online retail experience we’re not really sure where it will end up. Right now it’s all about driving more adoption, and making it more affordable for people to be able to purchase. So it’s creeping up in the sense that people are still experimenting, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. So we don’t have all the answers to everything yet, but perhaps we’ll get there in a few years down the road, when more and more people start to experiment with it.
Anything you’ve experienced that you think might have applications for an online store?
Bob: And you do experiment yourself. You know, you’re obviously doing different things with it all the time. Now, has there been any moment that you’ve been doing something through virtual reality, and theoretically you think, “Wow, this would be so cool if we could have this experience when people are on a WooCommerce site, or WooCommerce,” I should say, an online store?
Michael: Yeah, it’s usually the reverse, where I’m on a WooCommerce site and then I wish I could experience those particular products they’re selling in VR. So it’s more the other way around, because generally I’m on my desktop more than I’m in VR. But if there is something in VR that I really enjoy, perhaps a particular product, that might encourage me then to buy it at their actual store, whether that’s WooCommerce or their physical store. So it enhanced my experience to make that purchase. It’s not going to replace their WooCommerce site, but more enhance the experience, so that way it made that buying decision a little easier, because I got to experience their product.
Bob: Right. So I’m gonna kinda skip ahead to one of the other questions, because it relates to what you’re saying. You’re thinking products when you’re on an WooCommerce site, or probably wherever you are; are there any specific products that you think will be, or you wish would be more VR-friendly, that would possibly really sell the product, using Virtual Reality, than maybe some other ones?
Are there any particular products that are more VR-friendly?
Michael: That’s hard, because when I say products it doesn’t have to be just physical products, it could be, obviously, virtual ones as well. It could be a concert; you could be selling tickets to a concert in virtual reality, and that can be driven through WooCommerce. So it can be a totally virtual experience.
On physical goods, what I think really works well is, I’ve been seeing a lot of twitter videos on augmented reality as well, what that will do is, you get to place furniture in your apartment and preview it on your screen, so that you get to see where it’s placed in real life. And I think that’s really interesting, because now you get to make a wise decision for your purchase before you actually go and buy it, and then having to return it because it doesn’t fit in your apartment. You get to actually put that couch where you think it might make sense in your apartment, and pick the color, or perhaps even just change the color of your walls and then go out to the store and pick out the paint that you previewed on your phone.
And that’s augmented reality, and I think that the differences between virtual reality and augmented reality will kinda be one and the same, so it doesn’t really matter, bringing up augmented reality here on this show. And it will just continue to enhance the experience for all products, I think.
Would VR work with trying on clothing for a possible purchase?
Bob: Do you think there’ll be a time that … right away one of the products I think of is clothing, you know, where you would actually see yourself trying on different clothing. I’m sure there’s, you know, maybe there’s already things in place where you could upload an image of yourself—I don’t know, I’m guessing that—where you would put on clothing and move around, and, “Ooh, this is how it looks on me.” What are your thoughts there?
Michael: Yeah, so have you played with Snapchat, or Instagram, on the augmented reality kind of, like, facial features?
Bob: You know, I haven’t, but I’ve seen the results of them.
Michael: You’ve seen that? Yeah, so that’s very similar to where I imagine the fashion industry could go. So rather than changing our face, we already have the technology for it, it just needs to be maybe smoothed out a little bit, and then you could place a T-shirt on your body that you would see yourself in on the phone, or perhaps it would be like a very large mirror on your well that’s technically a screen, but there’s a camera in that screen as well, and it’s just changing whatever you’re wearing.
Maybe the tech just needs to be fleshed out a little bit, where the quality is still not there yet, but it is still really impressive, and the tracking that can be done on that. We’ve been able to do this for years; I think even Disney has something at Disney World, where the people are going in front of a mirror … What’s it called, the mirror, mirror on the wall? And you get to talk to the mirror and then change, like, your dress or whatever, and so they get to be somebody; you could be a princess for the day, from what you could see in the mirror.
So those ideas are already out there, it just needs to kinda come out into the actual retail side of it, a little bit more useful for everybody and not just for entertainment.
Bob: What do you think about this; another thing I’m kinda thinking is, a lot of us now don’t even wanna drag ourselves to any brick-and-mortar store. You know, wanting to buy online, is Virtual Reality gonna bring anything to that? I guess I’m thinking almost in the sense of, could you be walking around in the store virtually and putting stuff in your cart, and from your perspective, is that something that people would even think is cool, or would people just think, “You know, I still just wanna see my products and drop them in my normal cart and be gone”?
Will VR ever replace the brick-and-mortar store?
Michael: I don’t think it’s gonna replace brick and mortar stores. It might drive more people to brick-and-mortar stores, I think, ’cause it’s really difficult to replace it when we still need all five senses to be able to feel a product. If you wanna be able to smell it, touch it, and all of those things; you cannot do that in virtual reality, at least not yet. To be able to experience that product in real life is way different than virtual reality.
Although you still can do some of the experiences in Virtual Reality. So, if you go to a store and buy a tent, you get to feel it, smell it, touch it, do all those things, but you can’t see that tent in the woods, you can’t see what it would be like in the woods, or on top of a mountain or whatever. So you wouldn’t be able to see what it would be like to experience that, and that’s something that virtual reality could do then, is, while you cannot smell it or touch it physically, you can at least go inside of it and see how big it might be in Base Camp Everest or something.
And then, take you into situations, experiences, that otherwise would be impossible, or perhaps you just wanna make sure that the decision you’re making is the wise one before … You wanna be educated on your decision. You know, sometimes when I go shopping at a store I will first search online for those products, and do some research, then I will go to the store and perhaps buy it, if I wanna go to a brick-and-mortar store these days. So if anything, I think it will enhance the experience.
And now, even a lot of stores are … Like IKEA, for example, is doing what I had mentioned with the furniture stuff. I’m more likely now to buy what I exactly want from IKEA, and it didn’t discourage me from shopping at IKEA; I experienced their products at home, then I went to IKEA and actually bought it. So in that case, I think it’s going to make shopping easier for everybody.
If you had VR capabilities, what might you be able to add to your store and how would related products play into this?
Bob: And I wonder, the more I think about this, if you had Virtual Reality, where you were actually walking around in a store, what you might be able to add to the site, which you wouldn’t normally be able to do through the normal online store right now is, a couple things is, you know, looking at a shelf and seeing several different products you can choose from, if they’re basic products, just for you. Have some choice, and maybe even, with prices on them, just like you’re standing in a brick-and-mortar.
And secondly, if you were walking around, it would take that whole new experience of related products that we see in WooCommerce stores, where you’re standing there looking at something, and sitting around are all these other cool products that would exactly do the same thing, but more in the setting of, you actually feel like you’re looking at them, versus just down there in those boxes. See what I’m talking about?
Michael: We don’t know where VR and eCommerce is gonna head, but what I think is that people don’t want a shopping mall in VR, they’ll want to experience one product at a time. So for me, what I think is just that people will check the experience of a particular product individually. For example, with the WooCommerce site, you got a product and you see a thumbnail of the image, and it says, “Click here to experience this product in VR.” You click on that product, you put on your headsets, and perhaps in that experience you get to change the color of the product, move it around, place it into different environments, and so on.
And then you’ve made the decision, so you take off your headset and then you actually purchase it in your desktop. So you’re not necessarily making that purchase in VR, you’re making the purchase in desktop, but VR helps you decide whether you want to make that purchase. And that’s where I think it will head. Shopping online is already pretty overwhelming, and I don’t know if shopping malls is the right answer to a shopping experience. I think that’s the first thing that everyone thinks of when they think of VR, is like, going to a virtual shopping mall as if you were in real life, but it doesn’t sound very good to me. I’m not sure if I could see that.
Bob: So it’s not necessarily going to replace the online shopping experience we currently have, it’s going to, like you said, enhance it.You’re still gonna go to malls, you’re still gonna shop around and compare, but most people who want to shop online specifically do it for the reason of focus; they can find the product quickly, they can look at it, and be gone.
Michael: Yeah, exactly. And that’s where I think that the direction will be headed. And there’s very few websites out there that have experimented with VR, but most of them seem to be doing just single-product kind of experiences.
Or in the cases of 360 video, Gatorade, for example, did a 360 promo video, and just like the ads you see on TV, you watch something on your TV that has nothing to do with perhaps the drink, but you’re experiencing that product in a 360 environment, and perhaps that might encourage you to buy their product, just like a commercial would.
Any other thoughts on VR in the e-Commerce world?
Bob: Now, you’ve touched on what you think may come down the road. Anything else, just from your experiences so far, that you might be able to do the Michael prediction for? Or any other thoughts around VR in the eCommerce world?
Michael: I think we still have a ways to go. It’s definitely still in the early days of VR, but it is growing rapidly. In the last couple years VR has become way cheaper; Oculus Rift is only $400, and a computer for it is less than $1,000 now. So that’s way more affordable that it used to be.
And bigger companies are getting more involved. Several companies are hiring positions for VR; we have Apple really into augmented reality now, Amazon is all in on it as well, Microsoft … So all these big companies are doing it. It’s all very secretive, with a lot of the companies we don’t really know what they’re doing, but it’s continuing to get more affordable, easier to access, and in the next couple years, I think we’ll just see more and more companies get into it. We’ll definitely see more mainstream VR headsets, and the quality of them will continue to get better.
I think one of the downfalls of VR is that the quality is not quite there yet. You can definitely feel immersed in it when you put a real good headset on, and you forget where you are after a while, but once you get used to it I feel like the quality is, you wish it was better. So in the next couple years it will just continue to get better, in terms of the quality of the headsets, and cheaper; just like smartphones in the very beginning.
Everyone was skeptical about it at first, but then they continued to get better, and now everybody has one. You can’t even imagine life without it. And VR might be there some day.
Any experience you have had with VR that has been bizarro?
Bob: I’m sure it will. It’s going that regular route of technology. Now I’m going to throw in one last question, and this doesn’t have to do with retail. Is there any experience you’ve had with VR, personally, that has been bizarro? Not that you’re watching anything weird, but just something that you, it wasn’t so much like, “Wow, this is so awesome,” but after you were done with it you thought, “Wow, that was … ” that kind of hits you in a weird way, that that was a little bit beyond normal. Anything?
Michael: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of those experiences actually. But I’d say the one that stands out right now is this experience called The Wave. I’m 32, and with a one-year-old, I can’t go out clubbing as much as I used to in my early 20s, but in The Wave you get to go clubbing again. It’s basically a very trippy clubbing experience, and there’s a DJ there, and he can manipulate the environment as well, so it’s like you’re on some drug. In virtual reality there’s lights everywhere, people dancing, and you’re sharing kind of really trippy experiences with other people.
It’s totally bizarre, but also amazing. It’s a really cool kind of thing. When I went in there I kind of got emotional about it, because it’s been a long time since I went out to a club and danced, and stuff like that. But I was able to do that in VR, and it felt really good to experience that again. I think VR is gonna make a lot of things more accessible for people that are not able to have those type of experiences in real life due to whatever circumstances.
Bob: Yes, it could really take you in some exciting direction, and some, like you said, kind of bizarre directions.
Michael: Yeah, we may be able to watch the Olympics in VR, or other sporting events. Perhaps you’ll be buying a ticket in VR for a seat, front row seat, and then you don’t even have to travel across the world to see the Olympics. Or you can experience what it’s like in war-torn countries, and perhaps that will make you a little bit more understanding and empathetic of the environment that’s going on over there, and perhaps change your opinion of whatever is happening over there. There’s a lot of possibilities.
Bob: No kidding. Well this has been pretty cool. I mean, I haven’t gotten into it yet, and I’m sure sometime it will, but I’m sure it has everyone thinking a lot of what’s around the bend.
Michael: Yeah, I hope so.
Bob: Okay, well, I really appreciate it. As usually, I would love to know where people can find you around, if you wanna connect with Michael on the web.
Where can our listeners connect with Michael on the web?
Michael: The best place would be twitter, @MichaelTieso, it’s Tieso, T-I-E-S-O. It’s the best place to find me. I’m pretty active on twitter.
Bob: Cool, all right. Well, appreciate you taking the time and coming back for a second appearance.
Michael: Yeah, thank you again.