Cecilia Lejeune, Human-Computer Interface & Virtual Reality Engineer, Rakuten Institute of Technology, Paris

Games, medicine, real-estate, architecture, weddings, industry… In the last few years, we’ve seen countless explorations into virtual reality, but there’s one area that’s only seen limited activity: e-commerce. We aim to change that – with a completely new approach.

To date, attempts to combine VR and online shopping have tended to focus on mimicking the real world by creating realistic 3D models of shop interiors – complete with 3D models of products laid out on 3D shelves. When you visit such virtual stores, they basically look like the store down the street, minus the physical interaction. To me, there is little added value in that kind of experience.

Why would we want to limit our virtual shopping experiences to models that already exist in the real world? Are we fearful of the unknown?

I believe that virtual reality is unlike anything we have ever known. A really good virtual reality experience – comfortable and immersive – simply cannot be described in words. As a virtual reality developer, I feel privileged to be able to explore these new horizons and propose shopping experiences that are unlike anything people have known before.

At the Rakuten Institute of Technology in Paris, we decided to take a leap of faith and develop the first fun and intuitive VR shopping application that is based in a completely imaginary universe. Our starting point was to try to imagine the very best experience we could have with existing technology. After one unsuccessful attempt last December, we began building our current prototype from scratch.

Of course, because we weren’t simply basing our virtual universe on the real world, we needed to develop a design for it – and that task fell to graphic artist Jeremy Pluvinage, who worked with us for around three months creating the look of the boutique. Rakuten PriceMinister also helped out by allowing us to make use of their product catalog and providing communication support.

We decided to create distinct “worlds” for each product category. In the music category, for example, you can watch video clips of concerts, selecting a style of music by grabbing one of the CDs floating in the air. In VR, the entire world can be made to adapt to the category you are exploring, or the product you have selected.

Once you have selected a product, imagine it being able to tell you the story of its creation, not just through words but through pictures, videos, 3D models or even by taking you on a trip to another virtual world. We are not copying reality or mimicking real stores here: We are creating something fresh and different.

Recently, we asked more than 100 people to test a prototype of our virtual boutique, and their feedback was very positive. But we still have a lot of work to do! Many issues must be solved, like how to navigate in 3D through hierarchical categories and how to browse large numbers of products. Interactions in virtual reality must be easy and intuitive enough for anyone to understand, while still affording enough variety to allow users to perform many different types of tasks. The display of textual information about the products must also be done in an appropriate way. Going forward, we’re considering partnering with other businesses for content and possibly a design school to further refine the user experience.

We see this as much more than a new shopping platform. Our goal is to create an experience that exists somewhere between the real store and the e-commerce platform.

For us tech-lovers, creating this new kind of virtual experience is a way to contribute to both technology and the tech community. We know that our virtual boutique experiment could have a variety of outcomes, but, regardless of whether it turns out to be a great success or just an interesting detour, the insights and learnings it affords will definitely benefit us in the long run.