What if this, but seen through a clunky headset?
Photo: Julio Cortez (AP)

Retail giant Walmart has apparently concluded that the experience of visiting its massive retail stores can be kind of unpleasant and appears to be working on technology that would, uh, simulate a flashy version of that experience from the comfort of your couch.

Per a report in Bloomberg, Walmart has applied for patents concerning a truly bizarre “virtual reality showroom” involving headsets, “sensor-packed gloves,” simulated environments, and automated shipping. Yeah, it’s just as weird as it sounds. Bloomberg wrote:

The company has applied for two patents that detail a “virtual show room” and fulfillment system that would connect shoppers clad in VR headsets and sensor-packed gloves to a three-dimensional representation of a Walmart store. Customers could wander digital aisles from home and “grab” items, which would be immediately picked and shipped from a fully automated distribution center.

“Walmart knows that its stores are too big and unwieldy for people,” Zoe Leavitt, a managing analyst at patent researcher CB Insights, said.

Advertisement

So to defeat Amazon, a sprawling e-commerce giant that has become grotesquely profitable in part because it is ultra-convenient and efficient, one of Walmart’s potential plans is... A shopping system that requires expensive VR gear and virtual assets of Walmart products, all so that the user can experience some kind of nonsensical “sensory feedback” that may or may not be correlated to reality.

In theory, this seems intended to make shopping at Walmart just like that cool armory scene from The Matrix. But in practice this seems like an awful lot of unwieldy junk to deal with, especially considering Walmart is not exactly known for selling the kinds of things that would be really interesting to look at it in VR. On the other hand, this is probably the only way to shop at Walmart that looks even dumber to a third-party observer than helplessly wandering through its cavernous aisles looking for someone, anyone in a blue shirt.

As Bloomberg noted, Walmart is trying hard to compete online with Amazon, which has so completely dominated e-commerce that it is now opening up its own brick-and-mortar retail locations to gobble up whatever IRL shopping is left. To date that’s included collaborations with Microsoft to improve the ease, efficiency, and profitability of its online sales system and investigating the potential of Amazon Go-style checkout-free stores. Bloomberg wrote that Walmart has also filed “for more than a dozen virtual-reality patents,” though previously most of them focused on internal applications like “virtual conference calls.” It bought VR firm Spatialand in February 2018.

Advertisement

Patent filings are often speculative, referring to systems that do not and may be unlikely to ever exist—like Amazon’s prophesy of a future where humans scream at delivery drones launched from giant blimp warehouses. So suffice it to say that Walmart may not actually be all that serious about competing with Amazon with VR goggles and gloves. Which is just as well, because this all sounds like the start of a really lazy Black Mirror episode in which a user gets stuck in the virtual Walmart forever.

[Bloomberg]