Virtual reality has been around for quite a while now. While the origins of the term are debatable, the earliest published reference to the term goes back to 1938, when Antonin Artaud’s published a collection of essays called ‘Le Theatre et son double’.

Since the early 1990s, VR has been part of the common vocabulary; however, the excessive cost of technology and limited software has meant consumer applications have been limited mostly to gaming so far.

This is, however, changing. With technology costs reducing and VR hardware becoming more compatible with smartphones, it is predicted that adoption will grow rapidly. It is estimated that the market size for VR software and hardware will grow from $4.1 billion (Dh15.05 billion) in 2016 to $41.5 billion by 2020.

In 2017 itself, 6.3 million head mounted VR sets are expected to be shipped by manufacturers, which points to the fact that VR is no longer a novelty... it is becoming mainstream.

But does VR have applications in marketing and retail? Let us look at some examples of how VR is helping companies stay ahead of the curve.

* Creating virtual showrooms

This is perhaps the most actionable use of VR. Virtual stores are cheaper to set up, offer extended functionality, don’t require any logistics or staff, and can be customised by the customers themselves. IKEA has been using Virtual Home Experience for the last few years to provide customers an immersive experience, where they can visualise their own homes with different combinations of backgrounds, furniture and accessories.

* Enhancing product experience

VR is increasingly being used within the auto retail to give customers a feel of test driving a car. Lexus has been using Oculus Rift to let people take a virtual test drive of their new models in a much more realistic way than via regular driving simulators. Similarly, Volvo uses Google Cardboard to give customers a feel of driving in different landscapes.

The interesting point is that customers can immerse themselves in the product without even coming to the showroom.

* Designing better physical stores

VR is also helping retailers create and test different store layouts and planograms, thereby reducing risk and improving the return on investment.

German retailer Lidl worked extensively with Kantar Retail on VR platforms to come up with store designs and layouts for their entry into the US market. Similarly, Samsung has come up with the concept of Store 837 — a store that does not actually sell anything, but allows employees and customers to collaborate in a digital playground, powered by VR software, to come up with innovative concepts for retail.

* Driving omni-channel experiences

It is not only physical retailers who are using VR to create immersive online experiences. Online retailers are also using VR to simulate shopping in a physical environment. This creates a whole new shopping medium, as customers can avoid the physical effort of going to a store and the environment can also be customised to each customer’s preference (music, lighting, product range can be customised at an individual level).

Chinese online retailer Alibaba has led this trend by opening a virtual mall for its customers. and Amazon and eBay are also looking at setting up their own virtual stores. (eBay also have a name for their branded VR glasses — Shopticles).

* Building brand identity

Brands can use VR to reinforce the image that they want to be associated with. The outdoor accessories company, North Face, uses VR to simulate hiking in Yosemite National Park. It helps to reinforce associations of being a company that provides gear for adventure lovers.

Red Bull allows consumers to experience high adrenalin activities via VR, to enhance its edgy and hip imagery. In addition to building brand associations, using technology like VR also helps to enhance the brand’s image on being innovative and forward-thinking.

Whilst there are many potential applications of VR in retail and marketing, it does lend itself more readily to some categories than others — automotive and consumer electronics have a good fit with technology. Fashion and beauty products are known to be trendsetting, and in furniture and home design, the customer’s imagination can be put to good use via VR.

While these categories have been the early adopters of VR, we will increasingly see this technology being applied across other categories as well.

Gagan Bhalla is a director at Kantar MENAP.