Virtual reality: this is what the future looks like

Readers of a certain generation will understand what I mean when I say that 2015 doesn’t look anything like I imagined it would. When I was growing up we were told that, by now, we’d all be driving flying cars and our fridges would automatically order our food. Suddenly, although they didn’t happen as early as predicted, some of those ideas are realistic prospects on the horizon.

The Internet of Things means that my fridge may well be able to order my weekly shop soon and, while they don’t fly, driverless cars now look like a very real possibility. One of the biggest steps forward, though, has been the growth of virtual reality, or VR. HTC was the toast of the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona this week, after showing off the virtual reality headset that it has developed alongside video games company Valve. Heralded as a huge step forward technologically, the idea behind VR is that it immerses the user into a video game as completely as possible, through a headset that takes over their auditory and visual senses. A fully immersive computer game that offers a mind-and-body experience is still some way off, but the potential of VR was quickly spotted and it’s already expanded into other areas.

Last year Facebook bought VR pioneer Oculus for US$2bn, and immediately began broadening the company’s reach beyond gaming. Last week the social network confirmed that it was making apps for Oculus’ VR device, Oculus Rift, and, although coy about exactly what its plans are for its subsidiary, Facebook did say that it could incorporate the VR platform into its own offering, making the social network site something of a virtual experience. The potential for VR is obviously huge but one very exciting idea is that, as companies like Facebook, HTC and now Sony look for ways to make their devices profitable beyond selling video games, VR could change the face of online retail.

Earlier this week Target announced that it will invest around US$1bn in technology this year, as it looks to engage with the increasing number of people who shop using mobile devices. Mobile shopping offers customers an ease and immediacy that was previously unavailable. How popular would a device be that allows you to try on clothes from the comfort of your own home? Or view products in 3D before buying them?

Research suggests that two thirds of online shoppers would like to use Oculus to enhance their shopping experience, so market is ripe for retailers who can get ahead of the game.

We’re a few years away from virtual shopping yet, though. In the meantime, next week Apple will unveil more details of its eponymous smartwatch, finally fulfilling a concept that has existed for a long time (remember those smartwatches in the 80s that had lots of buttons and claimed to be able to change the channel on your TV?). I’m convinced virtual reality will be the next big thing in tech and that, when it becomes widely available, it will be the first retailers to embrace the technology that gain the most. What other technological advances do you think could change the way we shop? Let me know at, and have a wonderful weekend!