I Went Shoe-Shopping In Virtual Reality

Illustration for article titled I Went Shoe-Shopping In Virtual Reality

I don't even like shoes. But I couldn't help myself. When you can reach out and touch something that isn't there, even try it on for size, I dare you to say no.

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Ever heard of Sixense Entertainment? They make motion trackers. They were the brains behind the Razer Hydra motion controller, which initially flopped before it got a second life as the go-to peripheral for VR developers. They've been working on VR ever since, most notably on a way better, modular version of the Hydra called the Sixense Stem. Usually, I see them showing off new gaming experiences. (The lightsaber demo is not to be missed.)

But last week, Sixense invited me to try something different. Virtual shopping. Or a mockup of what it might be like, anyhow.

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Illustration for article titled I Went Shoe-Shopping In Virtual Reality

Your own private shopping experience. Imagine a model, a mannequin with your exact proportions. Endless shelves of product: just reach out and grab them.

Illustration for article titled I Went Shoe-Shopping In Virtual Reality

Drop shoes anywhere, and they float in midair with their description and statistics right in front of you. Tap a button to change the color, another to add to your cart. Tap another to play a video from the manufacturer.

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Illustration for article titled I Went Shoe-Shopping In Virtual Reality

Drag them to the model's feet, and they'll pop right on for you to examine the fit, too.

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The key to all of this, the part that's hard to explain, is how natural it felt to reach out, grab things, and examine them in this virtual environment. How much better it felt than looking at flat images of products on a website.

It's a very simple application, no fancy graphics, just mocked up in a hurry by the company as one of many stabs at a killer app for VR technology. But Sixense says the companies they showed it to were blown away by the demo, particularly by the idea that they could reduce the number of online returns. Some big retailers were on that list. Now Sixense is hammering out deals with potential partners for an actual launch later this year. It's going to be an app for the Samsung Gear VR headset.

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The ideas are already churning for how virtual shopping might evolve, how valuable it could be, and the problems that still need solving. How do you make virtual cloth drape naturally across one's body with the processing power of a smartphone? How do you bring other people into the experience: friends whose opinions you trust on your purchases, or personal shoppers to help you? How do you digitize and create 3D models of all the countless items retailers might want to sell? How do you let users digitize their own existing clothing—so that they can bring their own wardrobe with them into the experience, and create new outfits on the fly as they buy?

It sounds like a possible way to bridge the gap between brick and mortar retail, where you can actually touch and inspect a very limited selection of items, and online retail where you have infinite selection but rarely know whether the shoe will fit. It could be useful to either or both kinds of businesses to get a little more balance... or a place to launch new stores altogether. It's exciting to think about.

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DISCUSSION

You seriously glossed over the most important part, how do you tell if they fit? All you said was "Drag them to the model's feet, and they'll pop right on for you to examine the fit, too." How does that work?

Even when I'm lucky enough to find a pair of shoes in my size, its a toss up if I can even fit my toes into them (and wearing an 11 there is pretty much no chance or a larger size or the mythical wide). And even if I can get the shoe on, an edge might dig into my feet, or it might rub against my second ankle bone, or might might not have enough support to keep my feet from rolling inwards. How are these things going to be represented?

Seriously, if this doesn't increase my chances of finding a shoe that fits, then its just a cutsie demo that doesn't provide any real value.