VR and AR technology in Black Mirror: its “reality,” insight and promise for the near and far future of retail

Symphony RetailAI’s Andy Harris gives an insider’s tour of VR and AR in Netflix’s popular series – and relates it to “business reality” today.

Those of you who are fans of Netflix’s Black Mirror series will know that virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been a core themes throughout its run, from offering a cautionary tale on the use of augmented reality to permanently recording human activity, to the use of AR and VR neural mental projection as a gaming engine. In doing so the series touches on themes such as the nature of identify in the virtual space and how merging technology with the human body can give expressions to our own deepest fears.

It’s the exploration of how your identity and self can be fully explored in VR that is one of Black Mirror’s greatest successes. It’s also interesting to note that the few happy endings within the series are often where VR enhances connections and emotions for a better life.

What can retail learn from Black Mirror and expect from VR and AR?

Just like the positive endings coming with the VR/AR episodes in Black Mirror, we’re seeing a lot of customer success with our technologies, allowing us to drive the development of new product launches, new shopper marketing activations and new store refits into better in-store experiences. While Black Mirror’s actual tech and level of hyper realism far outstrips what we have today, the understanding of emotional drivers and cues and how this dictates behavior is very similar to what we have experienced during projects with retailers and CPG manufacturers.

We’ve been able to create better shopper experiences through the of AR and VR technology. First, we can use our Sales and Consumer Insights in combination with our assortment and category management solutions to gain specific understanding of customer behavior and the possibilities for strategic action. Crucially, we can then validate these virtual scenarios through online and eye-tracking research of shopper behavior to gain unparalleled insights into the likely success of new launches or in-store execution. This allows for continual refinement of shopper experience strategies that flow back and forth, enhancing each reality in a cycle of perpetual feedback. We boil this down to an easy-to-understand scorecard, evaluating different shelf and store configurations and highlighting the most impactful of them – bringing all these data and visualization technologies into a Shopper Experience Quotient (SEQ).

Through the use of VR, we’ve also been able to show real-world benefits to our clients’ new product launches and new store initiatives.

Actual case studies we’ve conducted using VR technologies show that improved in-store lighting schemes improves shoppers’ intention to purchase products and deliver more successful trip missions and greater satisfaction with product ranges on offer.

We’ve been able to help CPG manufacturers define the correct locations for new products that cross category boundaries in store, leading to more successful launches, and define the effectiveness of a variety of endcap promotional signage and offers, leading to an 81% increase in revenue due to implementing the optimum design for the correct endcap.

Does Black Mirror’s vision of the future set a map for real-world technology progression?

Black Mirror is set in the near future, where the roots of technology available today have evolved into a complete ecosystem, seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives. This is the biggest leap from where we are today with virtual and augmented reality. The hardware requirements and form factor of the VR and AR headsets means that for many people, VR and AR experiences are special occasions that people must prepare for to experience. Current headsets have just started to approach convincing performance without being attached to super powerful laptops, and the sensors required to wander freely in a VR world are just starting to be available, integrated into headsets. And, with Nreal’s new Light glasses, AR glasses finally have a spec, form factor and price point that suggests seamless AR may be more achievable for the masses.

Black Mirror’s VR devices are less about our current experience of VR and AR and more about the melding of technology with the body. It’s interesting, because in the retail space the focus currently is more about speed of retail space design, understanding consumer behavior that is shaped by changing variables in the virtual world. In the retail field, Lowes, Macys and Walmart have been on the vanguard of using VR to assist customer purchases, provide instructional help when constructing furniture, and in training staff to deliver excellent customer care. Recent reports even suggest that Walmart is now using VR as a data point in assessing suitability for staff promotions, showing how digital replication allows retail companies to improve staff performance and refine shopper experience virtually, rather than in mission critical real-world situation

The horror experience genre is ideal for VR as the restrictive view of your own POV combined with 360-degree play space and dynamic 360 aural cues create a sense of convincing isolation and vulnerability. We can now use EEG sensors, galvanic skin resistance and emotion detection technology to track emotional responses to stimulus, and full body haptic suits like Teslasuit may point the way for full physical stimulation, but we are a long way yet from the neural sensors in Black Mirror that can read your memories or stimulate full body stimulation just by sending electrical impulses direct to the brain.

VR’s vision for our societal and retail future

Perhaps the ultimate future vision of how AR and VR can interact to create an augmented retail experience lies not in Black Mirror but in Keiichi Matsuda’s Hyper-Reality, a fascinating short film, showing a completely integrated spatial AR ecosystem and how it could influence retail shopping.

In Black Mirror style, the short film shows a dystopian view of such a system, but the clever integration of social media, shopper marketing, personalization and gamification in a real-world space has a very lived in feel and is an interesting thought exercise in augmented retail.

We are many years away from such an integrated ecosystem and a common peripheral to display the experience, let alone mass adoption of such a paradigm with all the safety concerns that that entails, but visions for society and retail in shows like Black Mirror and Hyper Reality will ultimately prove as influential for retail futurists like SymphonyRetailAI, as films like Blade Runner and Minority Report were for previous generations.

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