Tech gadgets were, again, top of the shopping lists for Valentine's gifts this year. And virtual reality headsets were being widely touted as top of the gift ideas.
Personally, I'm not so sure that giving my wife a headset to put her in another reality could be classed as 'romantic', however, each to their own I guess!
Virtual Reality (VR) is a growing trend that I've watched gather pace in the last year. Facebook's Oculus Rift and Sony's PlayStation VR headset sales are believed to have reached around 300,000 over the Christmas 2016 period. Neither company has confirmed actual figures yet.
These are pretty are high-end, though. Headsets like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are all popular but come with a princely price tag. They are bought and used mostly by enthusiastic gamers.
However, in recent months we've also seen launches for a range of more affordable VR gadgets, such as smartphones capable of virtual displays. There's the Samsung Gear and the Carl Zeiss VR One Plus, both priced around £50.
However, now that this shiny new electronic world is within reach of a wider audience, leisure, hospitality, and retail industries are all trailing ways to make VR shopping, well, a reality, with everything from virtual shop shelves to 3D product views.
China's ecommerce giant Alibaba is ahead of the game already. With a payment service that works hand in hand with virtual reality shopping, VR Pay allows shoppers to browse through VR shops and malls, and pay for things simply by nodding their head. There's no need to remove a headset and reach for a credit card. Shopper identity is verified through account logins on connected devices with passwords, or using voice recognition designed to recognise unique voice patterns.
Wearing 3D glasses, a shopper can simply walk around a mannequin in an online store. They can inspect an item of clothing in detail, from all sides. Or, if they're refurbishing their home and can't quite picture how a new armchair will look in their living room, a shopper can simply upload a photo of the room. The rendered environment will then select the right colours and virtually add the new furniture to the room. Voila.
Applications like these open up new possibilities for online purchases, but also present new challenges at the checkout. Entering billing and delivery addresses is far from plain sailing and easy shopping calls for simplified payment processes. The development and integration of one-click checkouts such as Amazon Payments, MasterPass, or PayPal Express come to the rescue here with ready-made solutions.
So, whilst this might seem like a giant step for a high street shopping experience, many of the more innovative retail outlets have long been using opportunities for digital enhancement. High Street stores such as Monsoon and Accessorize already offer shoppers the option of ordering items they do not have in the store via tablet on the shop floor. With no queuing at an order desk or the checkout, this can be done quickly and easily. Other retailers offer the service in a seated area next to the changing room, payment included, with tea and coffee. I don't believe it will be long before we see this variant of online shopping offered in the changing room itself.
Whether you're a fan of VR or not, it's clear that it is by no means simply the stuff of movies anymore, offering safe and easy-to-use virtual reality shopping experiences for shoppers. As Brian Shuster, one of the initial pioneers of the internet recently said, 'VR is arriving, and VR will not remain in the virtual realm for very long. Very soon, the difference between what is real and what is virtual will be a question whose answer will solely depend on your philosophical outlook; but in the real world, virtual reality will become more real than reality ever was.'
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