The Coming Convergence of VR and AI Gives Brands Big Opportunities (and Potential Pitfalls)

Using the new technology to strengthen connections with consumers

Expect an explosion of virtual environments.
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When car shoppers walked into a Cadillac dealership in Greenwich, Conn., this fall, in addition to the usual collection of gleaming Escalades and ATS Sedans, they found an HTC Vive virtual reality headset.

By donning VR gear, would-be buyers entered a virtual showroom where they could check out the Caddy of their choice without ever climbing behind the wheel.

Luxury carmakers like Cadillac are the first big brands to use virtual reality as a marketing tool, but they’re hardly the last. Over the next few years they’ll be joined by others across a wide spectrum of products, driven by huge advances in immersive technology and artificial intelligence.

To experience virtual or augmented reality today you need to strap on clunky head gear or peer through your smartphone camera. In a few years, VR and AR will be built into everyday objects like eyeglasses and be coupled with AI.

The result will be an explosion of virtual environments that respond in a more human and compelling way, along with copious opportunities for brand marketers to use this technology to make stronger connections with consumers—if they don’t creep them out first.

Virtual shopping

VR is already being embraced by the biggest retailer on the planet.

Walmart is looking at VR to enhance “the contextual shopping experience,” says Katie Finnegan, principal and founder of the retail giant’s innovation arm, Store No 8. At its Innov8 showcase in Los Angeles last October, Finnegan’s team demonstrated a VR app that allows shoppers to try out camping gear in a virtual Yosemite.

“You can see the tent in the environment in which you’ll use it,” she says. “You can unzip the opening, get inside, lay on the ground and say, ‘You know what? this is too tight,’ then swipe your hand to try another tent.”

While a physical store might set up one or two tents, it won’t have room to set up 20 of them. With virtual reality, it can.

“The ability to have a real-life experience, to see how the tent’s fabric is woven and what type of zipper it’s using, has the potential to be the next generation of merchandising,” she adds.

Besides bringing online shoppers back to stores, VR could also bring stores to shoppers, notes Lyron Bentovim, president and CEO of The Glimpse Group, a holding company of VR and AR startups.

For example, you’re unlikely to find a Nike store in a small town, he says. But you can create a virtual Niketown and put it anywhere you want. Customers can interact with the brand in a way they couldn’t otherwise, while Nike saves millions on infrastructure and inventory.

And because it’s virtual, Nike can personalize the store for each customer based on his or her purchase history. Steph Curry fans may see a store crammed with Warriors swag, while Patriots faithful can gorge on Tom Brady merch.

“Right now stores have zero customization, so they’re trying to appeal to everyone,” he says. “VR solves that.”

VR meets AI

But things get really interesting when you throw artificial intelligence into the mix. Suddenly that virtual environment becomes not only more intelligent but also more personal.

“What’s really going to make VR and AR take off for marketers is artificial intelligence,” says Rori DuBoff, head of content innovation for Accenture Interactive. “Once VR and AR are powered and infused with AI, they will provide a smarter, more relevant and personalized experience.”

Virtual stores—and some real ones—will be populated by AI-driven salespeople who know who you are and are synced to your preferences, says Bentovim.

“Some people like to be sold to by an older gentlemen,” he says. “Some prefer younger women. Some want people who look like them, and some may want different ethnicities. A store can only hire so many salespeople. With virtual reality you can create whatever you want.”

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 4, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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