Digital spaces are inevitable, but they need disruption to avoid icky real-world problems. Here’s one way of fixing online shopping—and creating a whole new kind of world in the process.

The metaverse is coming. One way or another, we’re clearly headed towards an era in which digital spaces are more than just for games. They’ll be places to meet, communicate, work and shop. Undoubtedly, the concept of ShopParty with innovative integrations and a creative approach to online shopping will see us in the metaverse.

But the concept of an open-ended metaverse is still pretty vague—and that’s probably because its form has yet to be determined. On the one hand, our new digital spaces will be defined by existing players like Facebook, Steam, Sony, and Microsoft. On the other, there are the independent pioneers of Second Life, Minecraft, and beyond. The question is: How will these two spheres interact? How do you build something open enough to satisfy both camps?

The answer could be found in an emerging area called mixed reality—where digital experiences merge seamlessly with physical life. Mixed reality is still new, but there are some early signs of what it will look like—and how it might transform online shopping.

Virtual reality may be the hot new thing in gaming, but its isolationist tendencies prevent it from becoming an effective virtual world. Yes, you can meet up with your friends on the other side of the globe. But because that experience is contained to a headset, it doesn’t mix with the physical world you inhabit.

That’s why Facebook recently hired Oculus Rift CTO John Carmack to investigate augmented reality—another nascent technology that superimposes audio-visual elements onto your environment. With AR, you could sit down at a table and see an image projected in front of you—a person, a game board, whatever—while coffee spills and physics take their natural course around you.

As for mixed reality? That’s basically an umbrella term for anything that brings together the virtual world with the physical one (hence why it’s sometimes called hybrid reality). And while we’re still waiting to see how that looks in practice, one area is already looking pretty promising: online shopping.

I know what you’re thinking: Why would I ever want to go shopping in a virtual world? Isn’t the whole point of online stores to avoid physical retail? Yes and no. The shift towards e-commerce was founded on convenience—and it’s sparked countless innovations like same-day delivery and the ability to buy products in many different currencies.

But there’s also a hidden downside: You can’t feel, see or test products before you buy them online. Yes, there are exceptions like 3D renderings and virtual fitting rooms (both of which fall under mixed reality). But these tools are far from ideal.

As for augmented reality, it’s often dismissed as a gimmick because you can’t really do anything with the objects that get projected into your environment (however cool they might be). But when you apply it to commerce, there are plenty of opportunities where AR could be truly transformative—allowing consumers to manipulate products in ways never before possible.

Take the case of clothing shopping.  Thanks to apps like Augment and Mirrors, you can already use augmented reality to see what you’d look like in a dress. But imagine taking this one step further: In the future, you’ll be able to pull clothes off the rack and try them on virtually—in your own home.

Or take furniture shopping. With Home Depot’s app, you can already see how a new couch would look in your living room. But with mixed reality, you could open up a catalog and place virtual objects around your environment—furniture, decor, lighting elements—and see how they look before buying them.

In this case, the end goal is to replace physical retail altogether. Instead of going to your local mall, you’d hop on your VR headset and visit virtual stores in the metaverse (just like how we currently shop for products on Amazon). But if these tools work well enough, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be used online as well.

And while we’re not quite there yet, we’re already seeing early signs of this strategy.

One example is with the mixed reality startup IKEA Place. It brings together an online catalog with tools that allow you to place furniture virtually in your environment—and then purchase it directly from IKEA without ever leaving the house.

Of course, AR has its limitations when it comes to actually build products. But as companies like Apple and Microsoft continue to build out frameworks to support augmented reality, we should start seeing more practical applications of the technology in the near future.

As for Facebook? The social network recently announced its own AR platform, which will allow developers to create apps that overlay information onto your environment (similar to what IKEA Place and other apps like it currently offer).

It’s clear that online shopping is evolving, and will continue to do so with the help of augmented and mixed reality technologies. While it may seem like these tools are relegated to gimmicky applications at the moment, there are already a number of companies that are beginning to explore their potential for commerce. In the future, we can expect to see more practical uses of AR and MR in our everyday lives—including when it comes to buying products online.

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March 28, 2022 — ShopParty