Is mixed reality about to take off in retail?

Karen Harris, managing director of Intu Digital, is backing mixed reality technology to be a retail game-changer in the next five years. Harris offered several predictions about the future of the industry during her session at WBR’s Future Stores Europe event in London.

Virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality – with VR, AR and MR, it’s a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms in the world of retail technology today.

Karen Harris, managing director of shopping centre owner Intu’s digital arm, says it’s mixed reality – or MR – that looks set for take-off in retail over the next few years.

Speaking at WBR’s Future Stores Europe event in London on 17 May, Harris suggested within the next five years “we’ll be deep within mixed reality”, adding that it is a form of technology that can be truly transformative.

One of the digital companies leading the way in this space, she said, is the company Magic Leap – a business with significant investment backing from Chinese online titan Alibaba but gaining a reputation in the trade press for its secrecy. It is an organisation that started shipping its hardware earlier this year, and is looking to get in front of designers, developers and creatives to build relevant industry partnerships.

“For me, it’s the first mobile phone all over again,” Harris explained, highlighting how revolutionary she thinks the technology can be.

“They’re going to start a new chapter in e-commerce.”

Magic Leap will rise to prominence in the 12 months ahead, representing “the start of this new change”, according to Harris, who says the potential of the technology comes in multiple forms.

It could allow virtual designers – be they be working in fashion or furnishings – into the home to advise on or embellish a consumer’s product search. Tests in association with Alibaba in China have revolved around consumers wearing the devices, measuring spaces in the home, and the online marketplace automatically finding the right-sized/most suitable product in its inventory for straightforward e-commerce ordering.

There will be no need to scroll through SKUs looking for the item offering the right size or fit of lightbulb, Harris suggested as an example.

Magic Leap One, the initial product from the tech company, promises “spatial browsing” which is effectively supporting new ways of shopping and exploring the world with a virtual overlay. Harris stopped short of explaining how the technology might influence the shopping centre experience, but her enthusiasm for mixed reality would suggest it’s a consideration for the future customer experience in Intu’s properties.

Tech giant Microsoft is one of the companies also touting mixed reality as the future. It already has some retailer user cases for its HoloLens technology in that space, and says it could be transformational in manufacturing, DIY retail, or in consumers trying on jewellery, for example.

Mixed reality and other predictions

While mixed reality is a favoured subject for Harris, she had some other predictions for the future of retail.

She expects voice shopping assistants from the likes of Amazon and Google to gain more traction, while she noted subscription will become the new loyalty – where people pay the company for loyalty rather than vice versa, a la Amazon Prime.

Rapid drone delivery is also on the horizon, according to Harris, and there’ll be more and more situations where “machines will know what we want before we even know we need it”.

As the advent of many of these digital-led solutions and services continues a pace, the experience in the store will become a key selling point in attracting visitors. That’s no secret, and it’s certainly true that we’re in a concerted period of disruption as retailers work out what to do with their stores.

The current predicament and financial restructuring seen as the likes of Carpetright, Mothercare and New Look in the UK, prove the point, with approximately 150 stores operated by just these three UK high street mainstays set to close down in the coming months.

Paraphrasing US author and futurist Doug Stephens – or the Retail Prophet, as he is known – Harris said the store now becomes a stage for storytelling. And the brands that succeed will offer this in the most compelling ways.

“The physical store is actually going to become the most powerful media channel for your consumers,” she said, adding physical media experiences will need to be so powerful that they inspire purchases across all of a retailer’s channels.

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