What Virtual Reality Means for eCommerce

Virtual reality is the talk of the town right now, and not just in tech circles. Today we’re chatting with Daniel Beauchamp, head of VR at Shopify, to understand how virtual reality might change the face of eCommerce in the not-so-distant future.

Here’s everything you need to know about virtual reality basics, like top-of-the-line headsets and the VR capabilities of mobile phones. We dive into the fascinating potential of virtual reality shopping as it could benefit eCommerce merchants, change the shopping experience for customers, and what it will take to generate a virtual store with 3D depictions of your products.

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(With your host Andrew Youderian of eCommerceFuel.com and Daniel Beauchamp of Shopify)

Andrew: Welcome to the eCommerceFuel podcast, the show dedicated to helping high six- and seven-figure entrepreneurs build amazing online companies and incredible lives. I’m your host and fellow eCommerce entrepreneur Andrew Youderian.

Hey guys, Andrew here, and welcome to the eCommerceFuel podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. Today on the show we’ll be talking about virtual reality, something that’s been getting a lot of attention, and I think rightfully so, over the last year plus. I had my first kind of legitimate VR experience recently, as I’ve talked about, and I wanted to learn more about it, see how evolved the technology is, some of the implications for e-commerce, and brought on Daniel Beauchamp from Shopify. He’s the head of virtual reality over at Shopify. And we talk about, you know, why does Shopify have a VR team? What product categories specifically does VR hold the most promise for? We talked about some of the ecosystem, the different levels of headsets, all sorts of things. We cover a lot of ground. I think VR is still a little bit out from being, you know, mainstream at least from a merchant’s perspective, from where we’re going to be able to as merchants publish our own VR store and have that makes sense. But I think it is coming in the intermediate future, and I think it’s if nothing else a fascinating thing to talk about. So, I hope you enjoy the discussion. We’ll dive right in.

So Daniel, why does Shopify have a VR Department? What’s ultimately the reason and the vision?

How Shopify Is Using VR

Daniel: Yeah, so we see VR as a new medium that’s here to stay. I mean, it really has the potential of changing the world, and it’s going to become more and more popular, and I think integrated into our lives, and naturally people are going to want to be able to shop in it in the same way that people wanted to be able to shop on mobile phones. So, our goal with it is to kind of see “Well, how can we help make that happen and how can we help us get to that point faster?” But it’s more than just from a shopping angle, because a lot of people think, “Oh virtual reality in commerce, yeah, like put me inside a 3D mall where I can pick up products.” And, that’s kind of just one part of that, and in some ways that’s kind of a limited view on it.

So, the example I always give is that of like a camping store. If you wanted to buy a tent in VR, would you rather be in a virtual representation of a camping store or in a virtual representation of the mountain you’d be camping on or the forest that you’d be camping in? So for the first time ever, brands can actually put people in the stories that their products tell. And that’s still just about the consumer, right?

How can VR benefit the merchant? So everything from product customization, like they can actually load up a 3D model of their product, see how it’s built, play around with different prototypes, all within VR. Even stuff like “Which box should I ship my product in?” And being able to see a 3D model of your product in a 3D box and be like “Oh, it could pack in like this and we can do this type of packaging.” It just helps people visualize stuff in a much better way. Or even to stuff like planning out their retail spaces, and so our goal with this is just to see how can VR help commerce as a whole? Everything from empowering the merchants, to empowering the customers, and making a better experience for everyone.

Andrew: And how big is the team, the VR team at Shopify?

Daniel: So it’s still pretty small, we’re just about four people right now.

Andrew: What are you guys working on on a daily basis? Are you mostly doing R&D? Just, I mean, I’m trying to understand how the ecosystem works and really become an advisory board to Shopify? Or are you actually in their kind of, you know, wrenching away and building VR experiences that hopefully you’re going to be able to plug in to the Shopify platform at some point?

Research and Development

Daniel: Yeah so it’s all R&D right now. And in some ways yes a lot of it is commerce related, but then because VR is so new, I mean yes VR has been around for decades, but this generation of VR is so new that there’s kind of no best practices out there. And some of the core interactions in how you use this device they haven’t been discovered yet. So while we’re trying to tackle the VR and commerce relationship, we’re also trying to define “Well, what are some basic interactions that people do in VR?” and trying to share that with the community.

A Virtual Retail Department

Andrew: And maybe without getting into too much depth, because I’m curious, other people may not be in this kind of a geek aspect, but the demo that you guys did at Unite where you went in, you you could look around, it was a retail environment. How did you guys build that? Like is there a Microsoft developer studio for VR? How does that even work? What tools are available for developing VR experiences?

Daniel: Yeah, so we used a game engine called Unreal, so it’s the Unreal Engine.

Andrew: Ah, okay.

Daniel: There’s also another very popular one called Unity. Those are kind of like the two big players in the space. They are dedicating a lot of resources towards bettering the tools for developing for VR.

Andrew: How long do you think until Shopify merchants can actually build out a VR version of the store? Because I would guess, at least from my perspective, what gets me excited is thinking, “Oh hey, at some point I’ll be able to install a VR theme for Shopify, just like I can install a theme that I’d buy for my store, and my catalog will automatically be inserted in there, and all that kind of stuff.” So I mean obviously asking you to peer into the crystal ball a little bit, but what do you think that’s something that’s a couple years out? Is that eight years out? What would you say?

When VR Will Become the New Normal

Daniel: I mean technically it’s possible right now, and that’s what’s exciting about it. Sure you have the big game engines like Unreal and Unity, but at the end of the day those they spit out an executable file that is several megabytes that you have to send over to someone or they have to download it. It’s just…it’s clunky, probably not what people want to be doing right now. But then you have stuff that’s entirely web-based that can still do VR. So there’s something called WebGL, which is a technology that lets you render 3D stuff natively in your browser. There’s no Flash involved, there’s no special plugins or apps, this is all just running within Chrome or Safari or Firefox. But then recently there’s been this kind of push for something called web VR, which that’s just a way that your browser can actually interact with your headset. So if you have an Oculus Rift, if you have an HTC Vive, you can actually code up a website using some JavaScript to actually render 3D scenes. So someone doesn’t even need to download an app.

Andrew: What about like the full on Oculus headset style? You could conceivably put that on and as a merchant be able to deliver that experience to somebody very easily. Because I think what excites myself and I think a lot of our listeners is “Hey, I mean Shopify has been great about making things fairly easy for the the merchant on their side.” So Apple pages came out, I know you guys just announced Apple Pay for the browser, I should clarify, and I know you guys just…I mean there’s just a button you can press on Shopify and bam, it’s setup for Apple Pay with a few more more updates. It’s very easy. When do you think that will…that ease of implementation will come to Shopify store owners where they can actually with minimal fuss, just like with installing a theme they’d be able to really put a VR version of their store online, like a full VR version?

Daniel: So I think it’s coming sooner than you think. So with that A-frame thing that I just mentioned, I mean that could easily be integrated within a Shopify theme. In fact we did a proof of concept that we did show off at the Shopify Unite conference where you go to shopifyvr.myshopify.com. You would go there, and you’d press view in VR. It just looked like a regular Shopify store. You press view in VR, and then it said…I don’t know if you have a Google Cardboard, just like put this in your Cardboard, but if you also had an Oculus Rift or an HTC Vive, you could just put that on and actually look around and look at these 3D models of shoes that we were showing off. So it’s something that we’re playing around with and seeing what kind of tooling would be required to give to the merchants so that they could easily lay out stuff and visualize that. Where it gets trickier though is they need to be able to have 3D versions of their products, because if they just have pictures of their products, well putting that in VR is not that exciting, and it doesn’t really take advantage of the medium, so that’s a whole other issue.

Andrew: For those pictures you mentioned, obviously that’s a big thing, you know a big thing getting 3D versions of products. What’s the best way to do that, like is there…what’s the easiest way for merchants to be able to do that? Is it those kind of devices where you could put the product on a little carousel that rotates and it just takes like 20 pictures and creates that 3D composite, or how are people going to be doing that?

3D Product Apps

Daniel: Yeah, so there are some apps right now for let’s say iPhone and Android where you just kinda take your phone, walk around your product, kinda always pointing your phone’s camera towards the product, and it takes a whole bunch of pictures, and then it tries to make a 3D model from that. And it’s okay. It’s just several things such as the complexity of the the product itself. So for example if it has a lot of shiny glossy surfaces, then it might not capture it that well. Also to the lighting like there’s just like a lot of factors that come into play when trying to recreate a 3D model from a series of let’s say photos. So to actually do it properly, I mean you do need that really great lighting. You do need a good enough scanner, ideally something that has a depth scanner in it too, so it’s not just basing it off of just pure images, it’s also reading depth information for the product that you’re scanning. Google’s playing around with stuff with their Tango devices where you do actually have like a depth camera inside the phone, and I think that’s gonna eventually get there. But for right now if someone is serious about getting a 3D scan of a product, they need to start looking at better scanners or that are not necessarily built inside smart phones. Like you’d actually have to go out and purchase a tablet that has depth cameras and stuff like that.

Andrew: Maybe we can talk about the lay of the land for the different headsets in the space. We were talking before we got on about how sometimes people say, “Oh, hey I’ve tried VR.” And when you kind of dive a little bit deeper you find out well, they’ve taken their iPhone and slid it into one of the, you know, the Cardboard devices and used that, which is cool, like you can look around and it’s a really cool experience. But it’s just worlds apart from real VR which is is like, you know, Oculus Rift, or a full on headset. So can you kind of give us just a real quick high level breakdown of what the hierarchy is for headsets in the market, and maybe what the big ones are to know and understand?

Not Impressed by VR? You Haven’t Experienced Real VR!

Daniel: Yeah, so I mean my biggest pet peeve is when someone says like, “Oh, you know I tried VR and it’s not that special,” and then you say, “Okay, what did you try?” and they’re like “I tried Google Cardboard.” You’re like, “Well, that’s not really…” It’s kind of a touchy subject because some people will say Google Cardboard is VR, and some will say it’s not. So yeah, the lay of the land is you have the kind of low end devices that are super accessible like Google Cardboard. It’s a piece of cardboard that you put your phone into. It has two little lenses in it, and you put it up to your face, and wow you can see some 3D stuff. The problem with that is for the most part what you’re looking at are 360 videos, which 360 videos I think are just in their own category, like I would not call a 360 video VR. It is just a picture that kinda moves around when you move your head. For a lot of the 360 video it’s not stereoscopic, so you don’t actually get any depth information.

Andrew: What does…and sorry to interrupt. What does stereoscopic mean?

Daniel: So it’s just whether there’s depth of not. So it’s like looking at a photo or looking at a photo.

Andrew: Looking at a photo or looking at like a 3D where you’ve actually got the depth in there, and it gives you that sense of distance.

Daniel: Yeah, exactly. Close one eye and then you have monoscopic, and with your two eyes you have stereoscopic. So it’s giving you the depth. It’s the 3D of the environment around you. So that’s the lower end stuff.

Now on the higher end you have the Oculus Rift and you have the HTC Vive. Those are the two big players right now, and the biggest difference there is that with the Google Cardboard you’re essentially just…you put it on your face, you kind of look around, you’re moving your head around, and that’s about it. With the Rift and with the Vive you can actually walk around. You can move your body. It has what’s known as positional tracking, and that just makes a world of difference because now suddenly you don’t feel like you’re just frozen in one spot. You’re like, “Oh, okay. Neat, I can actually like walk around.” You could crouch down. You could jump up if you wanted to. So you can feel like you’re exploring this virtual world that’s around you.

And then on top of it, the HTC Vive has hand controllers, so with those controllers you can interact with objects. You could paint stuff in midair, like one of the best applications for the Vive is called Tilt Brush where you’re actually painting stuff in 3D all around you with a wide array of brushes, everything from simple paints to rainbows and plasma and fire. You name it. And that’s kind of like what I would say is real VR. It’s when you’re actually able to move around, use your hands, and feel immersed in an environment, versus let’s say the Google Cardboard, which sure it’s accessible, but you’re kind of just sitting in one spot.

Then in the middle ground there is the Gear VR which also uses a phone. It only works on Samsung phones. You put it inside this kind of enclosure, put it on your face. Same thing with the Google Cardboard, you can only look around you. But it is higher resolution. The frame rates are faster. It is a better experience, but we’re kind of waiting for that to have positional tracking so that you can actually walk around the space around you for it to really feel like you’re immersed within that environment.

Audio for the Virtual Reality Experience

Andrew: What about audio? How important is getting 3D, and I don’t know if this is the right terminology for it, but I know that they have special headsets and technology that they can make the audio seem directional. So if you hear something you know, a pot fall and a clang, it actually feels like it’s coming from behind you, and if you swing around in the VR it’s back over your left shoulder. Is that something that’s pretty mainstream, and how important is that to the experience?

Daniel: It’s extremely important. I mean for one, real life has audio in it, right? So if you want to recreate a reality, you need to have that audio component to it. Audio plays such a huge role in how we perceive our environment. But then also you have stuff like movies and stuff that are done in VR. Where traditionally in a movie that’s not in VR, the director kind of picks the shot, and you’re looking exactly where the director wants you to look. Where in VR you can look all around you, right? So what’s actually going to be drawing your attention to the action of the scene? So audio can play a huge role in those kind of cues to be like, “Oh, there’s something happening in back of me. I better look around.” Because it’s kind of crappy to have like arrows telling you like, “Look around you. Look around you.” Or like, “Look over here.” It kind of just breaks the experience. So yeah, audio plays a huge role in it.

Andrew: When you think about this ruling out, obviously the technology is getting so much better, and at a tipping point I think a lot of people think. But, it’s still obviously not mainstream yet. It’s getting it out there is going to be important. So how do you think that’s going to roll out? Is it going to be mostly big brands and companies offering VR experiences to people in their brick and mortar stores? Or is it going to be people, you know, really getting these in their homes?

VR Will Be In Your Home Sooner Thank You Think

Daniel: I think people are going to be getting VR in their homes for entertainment faster than they’ll be getting in their homes for let’s say shopping. Right now the gaming industry’s what’s pushing VR forward, and you have stuff like PlayStation VR which is coming out later this year, which will just work with your Playstation 4 that you already have. I mean you do need to buy some extra stuff, but still we’re talking about there’s like 40 million some Playstation 4’s out there in the wild, and that’s immediately an audience for their VR solution coming out.

Andrew: What about if you had to predict when you think VR will be mainstream. I’ve heard all sorts of predictions, and I’ll define mainstream as let’s say 50% of households in the US have a VR set and use it almost everyday, kind of similar to when the PC became quote-unquote mainstream. Do you think that’s something that is realistically gonna happen in five years, ten years?

Daniel: I think VR is going to become mainstream, but not in the state that it is currently. As in, like right now the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, you need a very expensive computer, and then you need this very expensive headset, and then you put it on and then you’re in your little virtual world, and not many people are going to be rushing out to spend thousands of dollars to have all that setup. I think where it will hit mainstream is when VR is just a part of things that we already own. For example, the phone, right? Like the the Gear VR is an amazing device that you put your Samsung phone into, you put it on your face, and you’re in VR. Now you can’t walk around yet, but they’re actively working on solving that issue so that you will get positional tracking. So you’ll be able to just pop your phone in there, put it on your head, and then you’re now walking around this virtual space. So then at that point it’s like we already have phones, and if Apple comes out with their VR solution in the next few years, and you know Android follows suite and all that, then what you have is essentially VR would be mainstream at that point, because then most people would have smart phones.

Andrew: So like next five years you think that’ll be pretty…50% of households?

Daniel: It’s tough to say on the time line. I would think that you’ll be able to have a Vive quality experience on your phone within the next five years.

How VR Will Influence Shoppers

Andrew: So Daniel, what type of product category’s online for e-commerce products? Again, most people listening they’re selling some type of widget or some type of product. What type of categories for products does VR hold the most appeal for? Like Sofas was one that came to mind given the demo that you guys put together in at the Unite conference, because you had a great aspect of that where you could go in and pick a sofa and see how it fit in a room. And it gave you a great sense of how it looked. What other categories might really VR hold a ton of promise for?

Daniel: It’s really any category where scale is a factor for your buying decision. I mean the Sofa’s a great example, right? I would never buy a sofa online just because, I don’t know, I would read the measurements about it and then I’d be like, “All right, I think that would fit in this space.” And sure you could bring out the measuring tape and all that, but I kinda want to see what it looks like in person. And so there’s just some items where scale is just so important to it.

I bought a bike a few weeks ago, and I bought it online. And on the site I was using it was like, “All right, what frame do you want? Like 46 cm, 52 cm, 60 cm.” And I just had no idea of which frame do I need? So they had a little like, help find out like what size you need. You click on it, and it’s this huge chart where you’re just like looking at all these numbers and all these things, and I would just much rather just put on VR goggles and then I see the bike right in front of me and I see what a 52 cm frame looks like. And I could walk up to it and be “Yeah, you know what? I think that’ll work.” And while I’m at it, why don’t I customize the color, customize the rims, all that, and then purchase it right there? So it’s really anything where scale is important because that’s VR’s kind of special sauce. That’s what VR can give you that no other medium can. It’s showing you accurately what something looks like and how big it is.

Brands at the Fore Front

Andrew: What current brands or e-commerce stores, I’m especially interested in e-commerce stores if you can think of any, are using VR right now, today, effectively? Either, you know either…I’m guessing most of them are probably going to be in store, but even if they have experiences other people can plug into online. Who’s doing it well?

Daniel: Yeah, so IKEA just released something a few months ago that was like you could pick different colors in one of their kitchens and they kind of like laid out some of their products, and I thought that was really neat because you could actually walk around it, and I think they even had something where you could like grab meatballs and like put on the frying pan which I thought was really funny.

Andrew: That’s cool.

Daniel: You know, just little things like that. I know Lowe’s did something. I think it was called like the Lowe’s holo-room, where people could go and they could customize parts of the house and then actually visualize that inside VR. That was pretty well done. Merrell boots did this thing where you could, I think you were like up in the mountains and you had to like walk across this like really creaky rope bridge, and it was like some advertisement for their boots. But it was all kind of done in VR. I haven’t seen much in terms of actual products, like where you actually go and you pick up products and inspect it. Like Ebay did come out with something recently where they have a catalog of like 5,000 products that you can go and kinda look at them in 3D. I didn’t find it as compelling, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Facebook Buying Oculus and What That Means for VR

Andrew: What about, I would love to get your thoughts on on Facebook, their acquisition of Oculus. I think some people were surprised by that, and you can kind of see some of the things that they could potentially do with it with with the social aspects of course with Facebook. But what’s driving that acquisition? Is there any consensus in the industry or at least some theories about what ultimately they’re going to do with it, and how they’re going to tie it in to their ecosystem and beyond?

Daniel: Yeah, so I think one of the big reasons why Facebook did it is just because Mark Zuckerberg loves VR and wants it to succeed. Which is great because I mean having Facebook’s support in this is kind of like they have, I would think, infinite money to kind of support this thing. I mean they have the resources to wait this out, to say if VR’s going to take 10 years to actually hit mainstream or more, they can actually kind of afford that. So it’s nice to see that they’re backing VR, and that you’re not going to have companies…like if Oculus was kind of doing their own thing and then, oh no, they find out that it’s not getting popular enough, fast enough, then I’d hate to have VR fail just because they like ran out of cash. So Facebook’s kind of acquisition I think was amazing for the industry.

As for what they’re going to do with it, I think they’re gonna do social stuff, right? Like Oculus already has a few social applications in there. You can watch movies with your friends, and you kind of see your friends as these little floating avatars. And it’s amazing how much emotion you can actually get from these little avatars where you just see their hands waving around and just like their their head bobbing around. So I think as more and more people get VR headsets, there’ll be more and more social experiences that tie into the Facebook platform and I think it’s a no brainer for them.

Is The Matrix Our Future?

Andrew: And I can’t end our discussion without asking about the some would say far fetched, some would say very realistic potentially, aspects on the social front. Where VR gets so good, and it’s so incredible, and people love the VR experience so much more than their their ordinary lives, that you run into these issues where, you know people plug into the matrix so to speak, and you’ve got all sorts of implications with people withdrawing from society. What do you think on the spectrum of like, totally feasible as a 10, and like crazy science fiction as a 1, what do you think? Any justification of that?

Daniel: I’m kinda like the wrong person to ask about that because if you could plug something into my brain where I would be in this kind of virtual fantasy land like I would do it in a heartbeat. But I mean not because I want to escape this world, but just like if you give me the option of being on this Earth or being able to like float around through space, or materialize any thing I want, or be in that kind of matrix environment, I mean come on. But the thing is, I wouldn’t want to be doing that alone, right? Like a big misconception about VR is that it’s antisocial. People put on this headset, and they’re locked away in their own little world. Well why don’t you join the world, like the world that they’re in? And that’s where VR’s going to be super, super amazing, is just being…like you and me, we could be having this interview on Mars and just like materializing stuff that we want and just kind of like terraforming the planet, building all this cool stuff. Yeah, that sounds amazing, and I want that to happen now.

Andrew: Maybe with our follow up interview in five years when we touch bases again, we’ll do it on Mars in VR. I love it.

Daniel: I would love that.

Andrew: Daniel, it has been fascinating to hear your thoughts on it, and excited to see what you continue to do and watch with Shopify does in the space. No matter what happens, it’s an exciting part of ecommerce and online right now. So thanks so much for taking the time to talk.

Daniel: And thank you.

Andrew: Want to connect with and learn from other proven e-commerce entrepreneurs? Join us in the eCommerceFuel private community. It’s our tight knit vetted group for store owners with at least a quarter million dollars in annual sales. You can learn more and apply for membership at eCommerceFuel.com. Thanks so much to our podcast producer Laura Serena for all of her hard work in making this show possible, and to you for tuning in. Thank you for listening. That’ll do it for this week, but looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.

What Was Mentioned

Photo:Flickr/Nan Palmero

Andrew Youderian
Post by Andrew Youderian
Andrew is the founder of eCommerceFuel and has been building eCommerce businesses ever since gleefully leaving the corporate world in 2008.  Join him and 1,000+ vetted 7- and 8-figure store owners inside the eCommerceFuel Community.

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