Q&A: on Apple’s Vision Pro and immersive ecommerce

Emperia’s CEO, Olga Dogadkina, on a new frontier for virtual retail

After years of rumours, Apple’s Vision Pro is officially a reality. The VR/AR headset hit shelves earlier this month, retailing at $3499. Promising a ‘new era of spatial computing’, the Vision Pro has the potential to change the ways that people work, shop and play. Could this tech be the beginning of a new dimension of ecommerce? Brands who will succeed in this space must think creatively and think ahead on how they can shape unique 4D shopping experiencesEmperia is a platform that enables brands to create immersive virtual experiences in retail, fashion and art. MediaCat‘s Editor-at-large, Natasha Randhawa, chats to CEO Olga Dogadkina on immersive retail, deeper customer connection and how the Vision Pro could shake up the industry as we know it.

Olga Dogadkina

Olga, thanks for making time to chat. For the uninitiated, tell us a bit more about Emperia. What’s the process behind creating virtual retail experiences?

Launched in 2019, Emperia is a pioneering commerce-driven platform that empowers retailers to build cross-device virtual worlds. The platform marries the reach and accessibility of ecommerce and gaming, adding a layer of user engagement, personalization and data monitoring.

Based in London and New York, the Emperia team consists of  3D environment engineers, 3D technical artists and immersive experience experts. Their platform has been used by some of the world’s most prominent names in retail: Dior, Burberry, Lacoste, Bloomingdale’s, Tommy Hilfiger, L’Occitane, Harrods, Giorgio Armani and more.

Dior x Emperia

Let’s talk about Apple’s Vision Pro. Although Apple’s initial 200,000 headsets sold out in mere days, for most people, $3499 is out of their budget. Can this tech and by extension, immersive virtual retail, really go mainstream? What widespread changes do we need to see for this to be achieved?

The aim of the Apple Vision Pro is to bring together users’ daily activities into one place. From work to sports to entertainment, social and retail, it seamlessly integrates those common functions while leveraging iOS’s historical usage data, intuitively providing recommendations and enhancing the user experience using 3D capabilities. Emperia’s solution for retailers enables them to extend their reach to new, younger, tech-savvy and more affluent audiences. By being first to market with a Vision Pro app, retailers can stand apart from competition and position themselves as innovators who take cutting-edge approaches to off-site retail experience.

Apple’s approach is completely different to what we’ve seen with VR so far. While these devices were mostly used for gaming, Apple has centralised the daily experience into a single device, enhancing and simplifying daily tasks. Rather than the usual fragmented experience of multiple apps, the Vision Pro takes a holistic approach; the apps feeding into each other, leveraging each’s capabilities. For the Vision Pro to become more mainstream, Apple will need to address the wearability of the actual device (weight, look & feel, etc.) and usability (battery life challenges, etc.). 

Building on that, XR has yet to truly penetrate the luxury market. Could the Vision Pro be that breakthrough? What advice do you have for luxury brands looking to implement VR into their innovation strategies?

For the last five years, we’ve worked with some of the world’s leading brands; Dior, Burberry, Ralph Lauren, and Bloomingdale’s. In that time, the demand for virtual shopping experiences has been on the rise. Since the announcement of the launch of the Vision Pro, there’s definitely been a great interest in developing native apps for the device.

We’re dealing with a new breed of VR devices, whose purpose is to encompass one’s lifestyle in one place. Rather than stand-alone experiences, shopping is set to become fully integrated into users’ routines. This is a real shift in the way we look at retail.

Shopping was once a social activity. We’d go to malls with friends, and now we often order next day deliveries in our beds late at night instead. As third spaces vanish, could VR offer a solution? What opportunities are there for brands to create experiences that reignite social connectivity around shopping again?

There have been several instances where Emperia’s received requests for ‘social shopping’. That doesn’t necessarily mean just shopping simultaneously with others, but having the ability to share your shopping cart choices, or display your pre-holiday wish list on social media.

VR adds a new dimension to this, with the ability to easily create one’s avatar and deep live-interaction capabilities. VR allows users to shop together visually; trying on garments in the comfort of their homes, placing accessories against their actual wardrobe, using AR and many other features. Of course, it should be noted that more socialisation will require scale and for friends to own devices too.

As you’ve mentioned, Emperia have created some stunning virtual storefronts for a number of luxury clients. When working with these globally recognised brands, how do you ensure these immersive experiences extend offline? Perhaps you could give an example of how to create a unified omni-channel journey? 

Seeing as Gen Z and millennials represent more than 40% of the overall luxury goods market, it’s a no-brainer why brands want to get in front of them in all forms they can find. To keep in the loop of a younger demographic, it’s vital to be active and engaging on social media. This is why brands like Dior and L’Occitane tell a brand story while keeping their aesthetic very clear and distinctive to online consumers. The luxury customer desires a seamless and unique experience when interacting with a brand. This means a high expectation in quality and customer service, whether that’s walking into a captivating physical store or participating in a memorable and striking experience online. It’s essential that customers are taken through funnels that make sense and offer the added value of entertainment. In this way, luxury brands can create seamless, efficient experiences and answer customer needs throughout their journey.

Here’s an example of an omni-channel journey. A customer could discover a luxury item on the virtual store and purchase it. They will then receive a branded package that gives them a perspective into the brand’s values. Later down the line, the customer will be met by retargeting ads offering products from the same brand that could compliment the product they previously bought. After the second purchase, the customer receives an email revealing a nearby retail store location or an exclusive event. This has the potential of translating into a social media experience/opportunity for the customer, leading them to share event attendance, store location and brand engagement across online channels, closing the physical-virtual experience loop and increasing loyalty.

Sustainability is a growing concern across many sectors. Could these immersive experiences, such as virtual try-ons, help brands — and particularly fashion retailers — address the challenges that currently surround the online-offline divide (e.g. high return rates) and their associated environmental impact? 

I’d agree. High return rates not only incur additional costs for businesses, but also have negative implications for sustainability, as they contribute to increased waste and carbon emissions associated with product transportation. By enabling customers to virtually try on products before making a purchase, retailers can minimise the chances of unsuitable items being ordered, thereby reducing the need for returns and promoting more sustainable shopping practices.

Finally, what changes or trends do you foresee from the adoption of immersive VR/AR experiences on e-commerce at large? How could this new tech shape consumer values, and what should advertisers know? 

In the past two years, we’ve seen a great migration in the nature of virtual stores. What initially started as a novelty, short-lived experiment has now become an integral part of brands’ ecommerce presence; a de facto flagship virtual store. Retailers are now involving multiple stakeholders in the development of these spaces — from ecommerce, to innovation to marketing, it’s all hands on deck, which goes to show the growing value they attribute to this channel.

VR is that last missing piece that makes virtual shopping actually ‘immersive’. Providing a 4D experience, it not only visualises the shopping experience in a whole new way (as realistic or imaginary as the user chooses it to be) but it makes shopping an integral part of one’s daily activities, by pointing out weather trends or offering lists of products, based on one’s travel, work or lifestyle needs. 

With retailers all vying for the attention of the younger generation, it seems we’ve finally reached an understanding to meet those new, loyal shoppers in their native environment; online. Therefore, the great interest in new devices and extended solutions which those audiences naturally gravitate to will only continue to grow.

Featured image: Stella Jacob / Unsplash

Natasha Randhawa, Editor-at-large at MediaCat Magazine

Tash joined the magazine at the start of 2023. Previously she headed comms for The Marketing Society (2018-2022). Now as MediaCat's Editor-at-large, she travels around Southeast Asia, writing about culture, social impact, creativity and technology, and how these forces influence the marketing industry and wider business world.

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