Shopping in VR is one of those things that sounds incredibly obvious: all the convenience of Amazon, without the slightly impersonal feeling of looking at pictures on a screen. But no one seems sure what makes in-store shopping special. Is it looking at real versions of the items you're going to buy? Is it little extras like fashion show clips? Or is it the literal feeling of being inside the building?
Retale, the deal-finding service that raised $12 million earlier this year, could help us figure out the answer. The company has announced that it's launching an Oculus Rift-based counterpart to its mobile app, set for release when the Rift goes on sale in early 2016. It could also theoretically come to other platforms; Retale says the company is starting with the Rift and will "determine where to go next" once it's launched. While a number of prototypes and concept designs have shown us what VR shopping could look like, this may be the most concrete plan yet for an actual app.
It may also be one of the weirdest, because Retale isn't exactly a shopping tool. It's a digital version of the weekly promotional circulars that stores like Walmart or Target hand out, using location data to find nearby stores and display sales from them. Based on the screenshots and video we've seen so far, Retale VR directly transplants that deal-browsing experience into the Oculus Rift, then lets users enter what it calls a "virtual showroom" to look more closely at a store's offerings. The showrooms are officially branded, and Retale says all its major partners will be signed on to the VR app, though it's only revealed three for now: Target, JCPenney, and Macy's.
But you're apparently not making purchases there. Instead, Retale directs you to a nearby retail outlet, sending a phone push notification with directions and your shopping list. Which means that you're going to a virtual store in order to prepare for going to a real store. It's not totally clear that this makes any sense at all, unless the showrooms are exciting in their own right or the app adds features that someone couldn't get in the real world — like the ability to see products in different rooms or situations.
Retale president Pat Dermody tells The Verge that the virtual experience will let you "encounter the products more deeply without ever leaving the comfort of your sofa" — it's supposed to be an improvement over seeing pictures, but not the same as seeing it in a store. Again, it's not clear that we need that extra step if you'll be going to the store anyways, but it's hardly the only VR app to throw features at the wall until something sticks.
A few months out from the Oculus Rift's release, most of the VR apps we know about are built around gaming or video, although it's also possible to do things like browse the web and make collaborative art. On one hand, apps like Retale are a signal that companies are taking the system seriously, looking for ways that people might use it in everyday life. On the other, it's not difficult to build a basic 3D environment and interface. Virtual reality is a powerful promotional tool, and simply having a presence on a much-hyped new platform might matter more than the actual content.
Either way, though, this is a step past something like a Google Cardboard app or a 360-degree YouTube video. And while Retale doesn't yet have much competition in the Rift-based shopping world, that's likely to change in the coming months. QVC VR? The Etsy Virtual Showroom? Oh yes, they're coming.
Update and correction December 16th, 1:45PM ET: Added statement from Retale president. A previous version said that all major partners had signed up, but Retale clarifies that all major partners will be signed up for the launch.