One of the biggest revolutions in eCommerce’s history might be approaching. Earlier this month, the official release date for Vision Pro, Apple’s mixed reality headset, was set for February 2, 2024. This may very well be the biggest opportunity for augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) to establish themselves in the mainstream and the world of eCommerce.
AR and VR technologies are nothing new in tech enthusiast circles; they simply never quite managed to break away from the perception of just a novelty. This, however, is where Apple product releases shine as unquestionable trendsetters. The iPhone almost single-handedly kicked off the era of smartphones, and the iWatch did the same for smartwatches. Now, it’s time for AR and VR to take up the baton.
What does this mean for your eCommerce business, though? How should you prepare for the arrival of AR and VR in terms of technology? How can you strategically leverage them to match or exceed your customers’ expectations? These are the questions that we’ll consider throughout this article.
Let’s start with the technological side of preparing for mixed reality implementations in your eCommerce business. This is the very foundation of such a project; all your innovative ideas and careful business planning will come to nothing if your eCommerce infrastructure isn’t ready to support it.
CMS support for 3D models
The first item on your technological checklist should be verifying if your eCommerce architecture is ready to support 3D models of products that you’ll need for AR and VR. The content management system (CMS) plays a key role here because this is the component that’s responsible for storing, processing, and delivering various formats of content to the store’s front end. Traditionally, these have been text, pictures, videos, and miscellaneous files, such as PDFs. With AR and VR, the system also needs to be able to deal with specialized file formats for 3D models. To complicate things a little more, this is yet another area that’s affected by the ongoing war between mobile operating systems. iOS favors the USDZ format while Android the GLTF, so these are the formats that you should be focusing on.
Many modern headless CMS solutions will be able to support 3D models without much of a problem. For instance, Strapi, Storyblok, and Magnolia can all be successfully employed for this purpose with just a small tweak or two. Some monolithic solutions, such as Shopify, also support AR and VR experiences in some capacity, but the functionality might be more limited.
Space and bandwidth
A typical 3D model of a product takes up much more space than even a whole gallery of properly optimized 2D pictures. According to Shopify’s statistics, 3D models tend to be around 4MB per model. Keeping this in mind, you need to make sure that your eCommerce infrastructure has access to enough disk space to store, and bandwidth to distribute, those files to users without overwhelming the system. First impressions are crucial, and you don’t want your customers’ first experiences to be marked by endless loading animations.
Because it’s difficult to predict how popular the AR and VR functionality will be, committing to an expensive plan might not be the best idea. Instead, eCommerce solutions that are designed from the ground up for seamless scaling can be a better way to tackle this challenge. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the best-known example of such a model; customers only pay for how many resources they actually use, and there’s practically no upper limit to how much is available.
Adapting the front end
Storing, processing, and distributing the 3D files gets you halfway through creating a compelling AR or VR eCommerce experience. It’s just as important that once the 3D model reaches the front end of your store, it can be presented in an intuitive and attractive way.
To start off, you’ll need to create an environment where AR experiences will happen. At one point or another, we’ve all played with Google’s AR tool that lets you place various 3D models anywhere you point your smartphone camera. Your eCommerce platform will need a solution similar to that: preferably one that’s customized in some way to the type of products that you offer. After all, trying on clothes or makeup is very different from checking how a piece of furniture will look in one’s living room. Creating such a tool can be a major task, so you might want to consider a ready-made one, like, for instance, Aryel’s Marketing Suite.
The second aspect that you need to consider is how introducing AR and VR into the mix will impact the user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) of your store. Interacting with mixed reality is very different from mouse and touch-based navigation and screen sizes that internet experiences are typically designed for. For instance, Apple imagines that Vision Pro users will interact with websites like this:
Image source: Apple
Such an arrangement might mean that the UI of your platform becomes too big, too small, or distorted in other ways and will need to be adjusted specifically for this kind of browsing. You can try to get a headstart on your competition by applying for a Vision Pro developer kit that will let you try out the hardware and the interactions it offers before the official release.
You’ve gone through the technological checklist, and your store is now ready to serve users with captivating AR and VR experiences. What now? While, in theory, you can already start building those experiences, this might not be the best idea. Here are a few points related to business strategy that you should consider first.
Acquiring 3D models
To start with, you’ll need some content in the form of 3D models of products to display. In the early days of mixed reality adoption in eCommerce, acquiring these models might be a challenge in itself. They aren’t the industry standard now, and they probably won’t be for quite a while. Still, it’s far from a lost cause because there are several ways you can approach this obstacle.
- The usual way of acquiring 3D models is by getting in touch with the product manufacturer. Depending on the type of product, there’s a chance that they create 3D models at the design, prototyping, or manufacturing stage of the development process. Although they’re not created for marketing purposes, it’s possible that those files might be quickly adjusted to also serve this function without revealing any sensitive information.
- Second, you can hire a 3D artist to handcraft faithful models of products. This will get you the highest quality and most impressive 3D content and precisely adjust it to your needs, but, on the other hand, it will probably be an expensive project.
Image source: Apple
- Lastly, there’s the possibility of a middle ground by creating the models on your own. Don’t worry. It doesn’t mean that you’d need to learn 3D modeling from scratch. Instead, you’d be using one of the automated tools that are available on the market. The science of photogrammetry combined with AI tech allows software, such as Adobe Substance 3D and Alpha3D, to generate 3D models on the basis of simple stock photos. These models likely won’t be as high quality as those created by hand, but it’s the faster and cheaper option. It might be the optimal way to go if you’d like to give AR and VR eCommerce a try without breaking the bank in the process.
AR and VR eCommerce is much more than just a technological gimmick. Implemented in a deliberate way, it can become a crucial part of customer experience and the omnichannel strategy of your business. Keeping this in mind, it’s important to take the time to work out how mixed reality fits into the bigger picture of your business and customer journey. What are its unique benefits? How can it connect and synergize with other channels to make your offering more attractive? In other words, it’s important to find a reason for implementing AR and VR tech that will go beyond “everyone else is doing it.”
As an example, let’s picture a furniture business. Buying a sofa makes much more sense in a showroom than online. It’s important to be able to touch the material and sit down to see if it’s comfortable. The difficult part, however, is figuring out how it will fit into your customer’s living room in terms of size and aesthetics. If only they could take it home for a day and try it out.
AR technology makes it possible, at least in a way. You can make it a seamless experience to virtually take the sofa home, for instance, with strategically placed QR codes in your showroom. Once the customer places it in the designated space with AR, they can verify if they’re making the right choice and then smoothly go on to the online checkout. This can also work as a psychological incentive; the sofa is already there in its designated place, and it makes the purchase more tangible.
Image source: Unsplash
Educational and onboarding content
Apple Vision Pro might push the concept of mixed reality eCommerce toward the mainstream, but it’s important to remember that it’s still a new technology that will be foreign to a big part of your customers. As mentioned earlier, it brings a revolution in navigation that throws almost all of the familiar patterns out of the window. During the initial rollout of Vision Pro, users’ lives will be difficult in two ways at once; they’ll have to get used to a whole new operating system, the visionOS, and the unique ways that third-party businesses embrace AR and VR technology.
In practical terms, this means that for some time after you roll out the technology, you might need to engage in producing educational and onboarding content. Because of how intuitive online shopping has become, it’s a practice that’s currently almost completely absent from eCommerce circles. There’s just been no need for it because everything is self-explanatory.
Now, things are about to change. Introducing a new technology is a delicate process that must be approached correctly. The average user needs to be guided seamlessly; if they end up feeling confused or overwhelmed, they’ll simply quit and won’t give it another shot.
Feedback and iteration
Introducing any new technology or solutions is, in essence, one big experiment. Even with the best and most diligent preparation, there’s very little chance that you’ll get it exactly right on the first try. This is a normal part of the process that shouldn’t discourage you from making decisive steps into the world of AR and VR eCommerce.
That said, the ultimate success of the project will largely depend on taking the right attitude in terms of feedback and iteration. The way real-world users will interact with AR and VR eCommerce environments might be very different from what you, the wider industry, and even Apple itself envision.
As we’ve learned time and again, doubling down on “you’re using it wrong” doesn’t work. It’s the solutions designers who adjust to users’ behavior and not the other way around. You must be ready to collect and analyze this all-so-important feedback and agile in quickly making smaller or bigger pivots if necessary.
Image source: Unspalsh
Mixed reality is your chance to become an industry leader
Apple Vision Pro isn’t the first mixed-reality headset on the market, and we can be quite confident that it won’t be the last. However, the weight that Apple releases have on the consumer market as a whole means that this might be the very best chance for AR and VR technology to break into mainstream eCommerce.
It can definitely be a challenge to adapt and capitalize on this transformative moment; there’s no denying that all the elements of the checklist are fairly major. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a shot. There’s simply too much to gain by embracing the new technology in a smart way and, on the flip side, too much to lose if you stay behind the competition. It’s a unique time for new industry leaders to emerge, and your business can become one of them.
Published January 26, 2024