I am basing this blog on the rather clever advert by Nissan which showcases the talents of the tilt brush artist Stephen Wiltshire as he draws the Nissan Micra from memory using a VR headset.

The advert shows the image of the car appear in the same room Stephen is standing in as he draws it. This relates to recent developments in augmented reality; i.e. using a VR headset to view 3D images in your own surroundings, the concept behind Microsoft’s latest HoloLens technology.

However, the common view that virtual reality was a way of escaping reality is starting to be replaced by a more progressive view that it is more about switching that around to how virtual reality can enhance reality.

This defines the difference between virtual reality and augmented reality. Augmented reality is deemed more realistic as it maintains a user’s connection with the real world. This however does not always have to be streamed through a headset, as seen with Vein Viewer, a medical device that projects a patient’s veins onto their skin so that medical professionals can administer injections more accurately.

These developments in virtual technology will particularly benefit automotive companies who will start to struggle if they do not keep up with digitally enhancing their stores; a trend that is starting to be seen in the automotive industry as some carmakers such as Hyundai are starting to move from out-of-town dealerships to showrooms in popular shopping centres like Bluewater and Westfields.

Jack Rands, Renault’s social media director aptly defines this process as ‘moving with the customer’ (Marketing Week, 2015). When buying a car, it has become more about convenience, as people are less likely to drive to an out-of-town dealership if they can buy the car in a more convenient location or explore their options online.

Toyota’s GB marketing director Andrew Cullis has said ‘he wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon starts selling cars’ based on his observation that ‘a [simpler] ecommerce buying experience is what a lot of drivers crave’ (Marketing Week, 2017). The future of buying a car is changing, and who knows what will happen in the next few decades, the number of people who buy cars may even decrease as they rely on other modes of transport instead such as an Uber taxi. The future of driving could also be driverless, which is something that Uber are looking into in order to make their fares even cheaper.

Eventually other retailers will be required to use virtual technology in their stores. This is supported by the findings of a report conducted by Westfields in 2014 assessing the future trends of shopping (How We Shop Now Report, 2014) backing up the claim that customers increasingly expect retailers to use technology to intervene in the shopping experience. Companies that sell a service such as a travel agency could really benefit from this as for example using virtual technology to sell a particular holiday location would make the sales process easier as people will get to ‘try before they buy’ a holiday package.

Using virtual technology in stores goes beyond using VR headsets; retailers can use ‘real-time tracking’ to help manage their stock more efficiently or even to track a customer’s movement around the store. For example, Sweden’s largest grocery chain ICA monitors shopper behaviour using their CCTV so that they can respond to long queues quickly and identify the areas of the shop with the highest concentration of shoppers. Some stores are also using heat map software to assess the visual effectiveness of their shelf displays in real time.

However, this raises the issue of privacy. Customers place a high value on their privacy and so as marketers we must listen to this.

The important point here for marketers is to prove the value of using the technology. To do this, you must tap into the storytelling power of VR to achieve ‘VR excellence’ (Marketing Week, 2016); this means using VR in a way that helps you tell the story of your brand to the customer, helping them to engage more with your company and persuading them to buy your goods and services. A good example is using virtual technology in sponsorship of an event, such as Jaguar who launched a ‘Feel Wimbledon’ campaign to give people the chance to feel what it was like to hit the winning shot as Andy Murray, therefore offering a clear reward. The key here is providing customers with a reward, otherwise it risks being a gimmick.

The view that VR is seen as a ‘gimmick’ may detract customers away from engaging with the use of VR. It is important to properly integrate the use of virtual technology to avoid ‘doing VR’ for the sake of ‘doing VR’ (Marketing Week, 2016). The point of using virtual technology is to improve the customer’s experience in store, and this may not necessarily be improved if a customer has to put on a headset. It is important to make the experience interactive, as this is more likely to maintain the customer’s attention. The carmaker Skoda set up a kiosk in Waterloo Station by asking commuters to design their own custom version which was subsequently put up on the main advertising screen in the station, something which would have definitely attracted the attention of fellow commuters. This is one example of how the traditional car showroom is slowly being transported into an ‘interactive showroom experience’ which has the potential to be experienced anywhere.

The important thing to remember with virtual technology is that it is early days; to reap the full benefits customers will need educating about the ways in which it can enhance their experience and be more than just showing off the latest technology.

In the future, virtual technology could be a great way for marketers to sell a brand and to generate sales by providing an engaging and immersive shopping experience. However, care should be taken with how it is used as it has the potential to be a disruptive rather than a productive presence.