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How close are we to building the virtual Big Market from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?

How close are we to building the virtual Big Market from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets?


Current virtual-reality technology is ready in some ways, but limited in others

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In Luc Besson’s science-fiction fantasy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, one of the major action sequences takes place in a space called the Big Market. It’s a sort of hyperdimensional mall where tourists show up in busses to strap on VR gear and wander around in a desert, while virtually experiencing a promised 1 million shops. Valerian’s Big Market has some technology that we aren’t likely to achieve anytime soon. It isn’t just virtual reality: the stores exist in a different dimension, and shoppers can access their purchases instantly by yanking them through a dimensional portal at the checkout stand. But apart from instant delivery, most of the market could be adapted to real-world virtual reality technology, and in that sense, it has some interesting potential.

The Big Market is essentially an Amazon-style one-stop space that brings everything together for consumer convenience. But unlike Amazon, it could potentially let shoppers see the actual size, shape, colors, and quality of the things they’re buying, and could let them browse more efficiently in product-filled spaces, instead of clicking from page to page. That seems like something sellers might want — the chance to turn the dying American mall into a tech-enhanced purchasing paradise. But would buyers want access to a Big Market? Can we make one, and should we?

Tasha: Watching this movie, the first thing that occurred to me is “Oh, we could probably make one of those.” It would require a lot of buy-in from existing stores to get their stock scanned for VR presentation and get virtual stores designed, but Amazon has gradually achieved a similar level of digital buy-in from a lot of previously brick-and-mortar stores that want to keep competing in the market. The biggest usage barrier I see is that to use the Market, you’d have to have VR gear. The film solves that by having the Big Marketeers loan VR gear to anyone who comes to a designated wandering-around space. But am I getting ahead of myself here? Adi, you’re our resident VR expert. Do you think we’ve gotten to the point technologically where we could create a network that puts a thousand people in a million-store networked virtual shopping space?

Hasn’t Amazon already gotten the buy-in we’d need for a full virtual mega-mall?

Adi: It really depends on what people are going there for. If it’s the social experience of window-shopping, we’re not conceptually that far away. Second Life is a huge aggregation of virtual places where hundreds of thousands of people connect in a pretty rich way. VR is getting much better at translating speech and body language, too. You just have to imagine much, much more powerful versions of these existing ideas.

Making people literally feel like they’re in a market would be harder. We’re not very good at simulating smell and tactile feedback, and if the super-future-mall includes a food court, you also have to fool people into feeling flavor and texture. To realistically grab some Big Market gewgaw, you need a force-feedback system. In the film, the protagonist, Valerian, straight-up runs into a wall at some point and falls over, which as far as I know, would require either a heavy-duty exoskeleton or a direct link to your body’s muscle systems.

The Big Market as virtual users see it in Valerian
The Big Market as virtual users see it in Valerian
Universal Pictures

Tasha: I think running into walls is a bug, not a feature. We don’t need to plan around technology aimed at letting people hurt themselves by acting like action heroes. And I’m not sure the close-to-present-day version of Big Market would need a food court, since you can’t feed people on virtual food. I’m more curious about what would go into creating a space where people could see life-size, accurate, interactive models of products in an approximation of a real environment. It’s the kind of reason people still go to furniture stores or department stores — not just to see a three-inch photo of a couch, but to see how it feels in a room like the one they want to put it in. But what else do we need to worry about with our theoretical Big Market?

Adi: There's the whole problem of walking. The film puts everybody in one place that's not million-shop-mall-sized, so you’d need to make that space feel bigger and prevent people from running into each other. Places like The Void are doing fascinating work on “redirected walking,” where you curve VR paths so they look straight, but send users in a circle. But that’s only putting small groups through a limited maze right now, so I’ll go ahead and say we haven’t cracked it yet.

Virtual mall-walkers are going to have a rough time getting their exercise in

Tasha: In the film, consumers don’t seem to jump around virtually from place to place, which surprises me — you’d get really footsore wandering through a million-shop mall, and you’d never find the Orange Julius on level 5,621. I assume a real version of this mega-mall would let you navigate via pop-up maps, and zoom yourself to wherever you actually wanted to be. Or that it’d let you scroll through shops like Logan scrolling through sex partners in Logan’s Run. Theoretically, you might not need to walk at all. You could just zap to the store you wanted to visit, But then we’re getting away from the idea of a mall as a social space, and basically describing Amazon with a more vigorous 3D interface.

Natt: Yeah, I don’t imagine something like this being ready for a mall replacement, but maybe a Skymall-type thing for users who are already trapped in their seats, with not much else to do for the next few hours? I can see a VR shopping experience being enticing in that particular setting, given that Skymall is still, somehow, a thing. And attempting to make the experience more heightened than some photos in a catalog could be an interesting way to make shopping more engaging when you just want to kill some time. It’s the same reason a lot of people used to frequent actual physical malls.

Adi: Skeuomorphic 3D pseudo-stores are one of my least favorite VR predictions. Especially in the SkyMall situation, a virtual home base would be great for checking out clothes and furniture. But hunting them down across multiple locations would be annoying. It makes more sense if people are visiting Big Market for flanerie. It’s like the place you go to take Instagram selfies while trying out million-dimensional fidget spinners. That said, walking around the desert doesn’t sound like much fun. Is there a Burning Man-style medical tent for shoppers who get too immersed and succumb to heatstroke? At the very least, VR hardware could produce some hilarious tan lines. Seriously, where should this thing be?

Tasha: Honestly, given the vanishing American mall problem, we could just turn existing malls into virtual malls. You could wander into what used to be a Gap, but you can program your system to show you whatever store you want to be there, whether you’re there to buy hammocks or clocks or clothes. But speaking of buying clothes (or makeup, or anything else specific to your body), how long is it going to take before we can scan our own bodies into a VR interface and use our avatars to virtually try on clothing? We’re seeing new attempts to approximate that experience now, but the latest one is limited to pre-selected body-type avatars, and actually seems like a leap backward from technologies being developed years ago. Any theories why consumer industries aren’t putting more effort into the virtual-closet idea, or VR stores in general? It seems like a pretty natural fit, no pun intended.

Adi: Headset-based VR requires a lot of buy-in, for one thing. At home, you've got the problem of getting hardware. If you set up a kiosk, you're suddenly competing with real-world shopping, and you still need separate hardware for each person. Either way, VR headsets aren’t super comfortable. It’s easier to edit makeup onto a selfie, or preview an augmented reality couch through an iPhone, even if it’s lower-tech and less immersive.

You can’t check sweat stains or transparency on virtual clothes

Natt: Advancements in beauty AR are getting there, but I am guessing that, regardless of how well you can try to make virtual clothes look on your custom body type, it will always be hard to tell how it moves with you in real life. As Adi said, we don’t have good enough tactile feedback to let people feel the texture of clothes on our skin, so until that happens, virtual shopping is always going to be rather limited. There are also a bunch of other issues when it comes to trying on clothes IRL vs. buying stuff online. How transparent is this white dress if I wear darker underwear? Will sweat stains easily show? How tight does a skirt feel around my waist, even if it does look nice?

I am also curious as to what a social shopping experience looks like on a virtual mall. I’ve always thought of malls as places to hang out with friends as a teen, and it seems Facebook is already onto re-creating that with its VR hangout app. Adding a shopping component doesn’t seem impossible. But at the end of that day, that experience seems more like novelty than actually driving commerce.

Tasha: There’s also the question of the insane computational power that’d be necessary to reproduce all those stores — though maybe our theoretical Big Market could take a page from video games’ level-streaming technology, and save memory and bandwidth by only generating environments where it could actually sense shoppers. Since the version in the film is a real, static, physical place located in another dimension, it doesn’t need to make those kinds of calculations. But it sounds like we’re still further off from a virtual mega-market than I’d imagined. Guess I’ll have to go back to getting my million-dimensional fidget spinners through conventional online stores.