Virtual reality in the retail world

High-end virtual reality is out in the wild, but how is it faring? Is consumer interest and enthusiasm being backed up by purchases? Jonathan Easton asks the channel.

I was in Peter Jones by Sloane Square when it struck me: you can buy a high-end virtual reality headset in a shop.

I know, it’s a fairly pithy observation, but without much fanfare, the Oculus Rift has launched at retailers across the country. With considerably more gusto and media attention, the PlayStation VR has also just landed into stores around the country and the world. Earlier this year, the HTC Vive stuck a toe into the retail world by appearing at four Currys PC World, Overclockers UK and Scan Computers stores, but is yet to jump in at the deep end with a wide retail release. 

But even though these devices are widely available, have they been as successful as was predicted by analysts and retailers?

William Jones, head of buying communication technology at John Lewis believes that retail is playing a pivotal role in getting consumers interested in the new technology.

“People are trying it and loving virtual reality. The word is spreading fast. Retail is key to getting customers to overcome the barrier of wearing a headset and having a demonstration. As soon as they do that, they are – to a person – blown away by the immersive experience.”

Similarly, Hitari director Kamal Hitari says that the Rift in particular has fared well: “It’s been great and demands is quite high.”

There is a difference, however, between customers being interested and actually making the plunge to part with the cash. Ross Crowe of Ideal Computers (a part of SimplyFixIt) errs on the side of caution before calling the Rift a retail success at this moment in time.

“We haven’t sold any kits (yet). We have had some hardware enquiries from local residents who have ordered their Rift and found that they need to upgrade their computer to cope. 

“It’s helping to promote high-end video cards, though having the Rift on demonstration in our store has not prompted any impulse purchases.”

However, he remains optimistic that seasonal purchasing will lead to greater sales: “We hope there will be more of a buzz leading up to Christmas.”

We’ll have to wait until after the holiday season to really gauge how well the Rift and PlayStation VR have done at retail, but are consumers as excited about virtual reality now as had been expected?

XMG’s Luke Baker says that even before the VR train left the retail station demand has been high. 

“Since the release of the XMG Walker (backpack PC), I have been overwhelmed by the demand. Initially, the bulk interest has come from professionals,” says Baker. “I believe the consumer demand for such solutions will continue to grow as VR adoption increases.”

“It’s helping to promote high-end video cards, but the Rift has not prompted any impulse purchases.”
Ross Crowe, Ideal Computers

Hitari believes that the public reaction has exceeded expectations. 

“It was more than what we expected. Many thought it was still too early but it looks like the future is approaching very fast and we are witnessing a revolution in how we interact with others and the world.”

Jones believes that it’s not just the high-end options which are selling people on VR but all the different price points and options. 

“It’s everywhere now, Oculus, [Samsung] Gear VR and now Sony. They all present different price points and propositions but all bring a fantastic experience that most consumer will never have had before. 

“There is a broad church of consumers interested, it’s turned the preconceptions on its head.”

VR is obviously a very exciting technology and without prior experience of it, it is easy to see why retailers and consumers alike are being wowed by it. 

What’s more, the channel is fairly unanimous in the belief that VR isn’t just a gimmick and is in fact here to stay. 

“It’s new technology and perhaps more people need to try it before they will decide that it’s more than a gimmick. I think that without really giving VR a go, it is quite easy to dismiss it,” says Crowe. “I believe it introduces new fun into gaming, but I expect people need that bit more confidence before making such a large purchase.”

Hitari however is more matter of fact in the belief that VR will be a permanent fixture: “I think the consumer attention is real and in the next few years we will see a huge shift on platforms as more functions and uses of the technology are developed.”

So the devices are out and interest is real, but is stock meeting demand?

This is the most interesting and dividing question across the channel. Larger retailers seem to be struggling to keep up with the interest. 

Jones simply states: “Is stock meeting demand? In short, no. The stock is limited.”

Hitari makes a simple assessment of the situation by saying “definitely not”.

“The consumer attention is real. In the next few years we will see a huge shift as more functions are developed.” 
Kamal Hitari, 

Crowe argues that even if high-end VR supply is limited there are still “plenty of options there for people looking to give VR a shot, even if it means starting with a cheap Google cardboard as a very basic demonstration”.

Interest and demand are there, so you would assume that interest in the technology would be driving up sales of higher-spec computer components. This, however, is one area which is yet to really benefit from the rise of VR.

While Hitari says that VR has increased component sales, Crowe says that people aren’t upgrading their gaming rigs just yet.

“Have high-end computer component sales gone up? Not massively.

We hope to see increases once more people decide to commit to VR. As more games become available and there is more word of mouth around consumers and their friends, interest will pick up.”

VR is really here. You can go out to a shop and buy a multi-hundred pound virtual reality headset. And it looks like it’s no flash in the pan. It remains to be seen in the long-run whether it sells in the millions as predicted, but with hands-on experience essential to the purchasing experience, it looks like virtual reality is brick and mortar retailers’ game to lose.

Virtual Retail

Oculus Rift

Screen resolution: 2160 x 1200

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Control method: Oculus Touch, Xbox One controller

Hardware required: NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD 290 equivalent or greater, Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater, 8GB+ RAM, Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output, 2x USB 3.0 ports, Windows 7 SP1 or newer

Retail release date: 20/09/2016

Price: £549.99

PlayStation VR

Screen resolution: 1960 x 1080

Refresh rate: 90-120Hz

Control method: Dualshock 4, PlayStation Move

Hardware required: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Camera 

Retail release date: 13/10/2016

Price: £349.99

HTC Vive

Screen resolution: 2160 x 1200

Refresh rate: 90Hz

Control method: SteamVR controller, any PC compatible gamepad

Hardware required: NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 /Radeon R9 280 equivalent or greater, Intel Core i5-4590 equivalent or greater

4GB+ of RAM, Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output, 1x USB 2.0 port

Retail release date: 17/03/2016 (Limited release)

Price: £759

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