Immersive ‘experiences’ blend physical, digital worlds

Consumers will find themselves at the center of these technologies aimed at maximizing their spending at retail

In the past few days, I’ve toured a major film and television production studio, a whirlwind that immersed us in simulated worlds of action and adventure, and I’ve shopped the Bass Pro Shop housed in the 535,000-square-foot Memphis Pyramid.

In short, to use a buzzword popular in retail today, I had a pair of “experiences.”

In the past two columns, I’ve been exploring the real-world benefits of virtual world notions of the omniverse and the metaverse, two overused terms that refer to so much that they specifically refer to nothing. The terms in this space refer to the bundle of technologies and applications that rely on virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and, in particular, simulated, immersive worlds that demand for their creation massive computing power and stunning server capacity.

My interest is in what one theorist has called simulacra, or the simulation of something that does not exist and that has never existed. I am particularly interested in examples that show our preference for simulacra even over and above anything genuine and authentic, which is to say not mediated.

For an example of simulacra, consider the Bass Pro Shop. Simulated swamps populated with genuine alligators, imitation cypress trees to hold real tree stands, and blinds that are, of course, for sale, and an entire simulated ecosystem designed to create an “experience” that customers will warmly remember.

Bass Pro Shop’s simulated swamp environment

At Disney World, virtually everything is simulacra, including one “ride” that simulates the making of a movie. Only it isn’t simulating the making of a movie, because movies aren’t made anything like that, but rather it presents a version of what it might look like to simulate moviemaking.

I’m speaking of the “Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular,” an “experience” replete with pyrotechnics and girders and lighting cranes all positioned in order to look like a movie set. Only it’s never been used to make a movie, nor would it be used for such a purpose, because its intent is the “experience,” not a genuine depiction of what moviemaking requires. That would be, well, boring.

Building out the ecosystem

During the very recent tour of an actual movie studio complex, we heard a lot about “experiences” and the moviemaking “ecosystem.” This particular studio is building and otherwise collecting increasingly more of the various parts of making a major motion picture, so
that once in the complex’s ecosystem, the content companies need go nowhere else. This is the opportunity also for retailers and for brands in building immersive digital spaces that connect in meaningful ways to the real world.

These immersive, real-time virtual reality “experiences,” such as those offered up by Oculus and Meta Quest, reorient the visual world with the user at the center. Retail will increasingly have to do the same, which is reorienting their branded worlds so that the customer is located at their very centers, from kicking the tires to researching the product to making the purchase and beyond.

It is clear that consumers want a narrowing gap between in-store and online “experiences,” that they want all of the information, or at least access to all of the information, and that they wish to have a say in the final version of the product. Digital will need to blend seamlessly with physical, and vice versa.

Fortunately, the benefits of this integration are potentially staggering. According to Accenture’s research, fully 64% of “leading consumer brands” are investing in immersive technologies, which offer “experiences” designed to erase the real and perceptual divides between physical and digital.

As Accenture’s research shows, one of the larger benefits of immersive product and service experiences is contributing to the customer’s confidence to buy. Immersive tech can boost sales conversion rates by more than 90% (nearly 250% when that tech offers 3D experiences”), and nearly half of consumers say they would pay more if they could personalize the product. Another 40%+ say they desire immersive technology in order to research product features and experience the product before buying. This last stat is especially important in durable goods categories such as home furnishings.

Getting started

If consumers want more engagement with your brand and product, and it appears that quite a few of them do, that’s real money on the proverbial table. VR, AR, and immersive tech are offering you the ability to provide more product (and delivery and service) information than ever before, and to allow consumers to interact with your brand in their homes. This is one reason “try-on”
technology is lowering rates of returns, as well. And I haven’t even mentioned the value of the data that can be collected from all of these interactions.

The question for many is simply where to start. Not many retailers could take an enormous, dilapidated Egyptian-style pyramid and turn it into Louisiana swamplands featuring a full-service Wahlburgers, a hotel and an underwater-theme bowling alley. And few will be able to hire companies or talent teams competent in creating 3D immersive environments. That’s the beauty of column-writing: I get to describe what I see as big changes coming down the pike, but I don’t really have to do much to prepare for their arrival. But, I do know that as with most large-scale changes, the answer certainly isn’t to do it all at once, but rather to get started, to start planning, and to begin collaborating.

My crystal ball

A columnist can also make predictions. As Jerry Epperson advises, if you’re going to make predictions, make them often. Judging by what I saw on the film studio tour, here’s what I see coming:

First, we will be spending a great deal of time in the clouds. No one has the server capacity for all this spatial, real-time computing. We will need Amazon Web Services, the Google Cloud Platform, and the big cloud computing entities to power all this stuff.

Second, someone will (continue to) have to make all of this stuff. Immersive worlds, great content, and rich 3D “experiences” don’t just appear. They have to be created. This creative process will require creative people, content developers and digital storytellers. As an educator in these fields, I’m looking at pretty good job security.

Third, that buzzword buzzing like a bee in my brain – “ecosystem” – will become more and more important as the digital and physical lean into each other. Retailers and brands increasingly will be in the “experience” business, and those experiences will occur at several touch points in any one brand’s ecosystem. The experience offers to bring the consumer into that ecosystem and begin a multifaceted relationship. What happens next has to build on that relationship.

I’m thinking mainly of real-world brands with brick-and-mortar stores entering these digital spaces and places, but the trends I’m describing are evidenced by the reverse, as well. Alibaba, China’s Google, is opening physical malls in China while also going all in on the metaverse for e-commerce. Obama’s favorite shoe brand, Allbirds, an online-only entity until recently, is rapidly expanding distribution in the real world, including retail presences with Nordstrom and REI. Same for online mega source for prescription glasses, Warby Parker.

Thus, real-world stores will need interactive, immersive, high-def “experiences” customers can walk into, worlds that reorganize around the customer based on their preferences and shopping and buying histories. Online retailers are finding that they need to better offer customers opportunities to feel, touch, and try before they buy, all from stores that can double as fulfillment centers.

The virtual leaning into the real, the real leaning into the virtual. Buckaroo Banzai taught us that wherever you go, there you are. Real-time spatial computing is teaching us that wherever you are, you can go anywhere. Whoosh!

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

View all posts by Brian Carroll →

One thought on “Immersive ‘experiences’ blend physical, digital worlds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our Newsletter for breaking news, special features and early access to all the industry stories that matter!

Sponsored By: