Virtual reality (VR) devices are considered the next big thing in Internet technology. Several industry leaders have been vying to apply the technology to video games, videos and advertising. Recently, the technology has generated a lot of hype for shopping online. However, despite the technology's huge potential, analysts told the Global Times it will still be a while before VR can reshape the way people use the Internet. The technology will first be applied to online entertainment, analysts said. As for online shopping, VR technology will likely remain in the experimental stage for a foreseeable future.
A man tests out a virtual reality (VR) headset at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on February 25. For many people, VR headsets are the next big thing in the Internet industry, prompting many companies to consider how they might be used to drive online shopping. Photo: CFP
Image this. You are shopping on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, happily trying on anything you like, except that you are not in Paris. Rather, you are sitting on the couch in your own living room, wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset.
Or this. You are surfing Alibaba's e-commerce platform Taobao, and you have your eye on a stylish new skirt. Still, you hesitate because you still don't know how it's going to look on you. But with a VR headset, you will be able to see whether that shade of red really goes well with your skin tone.
Fascinating, isn't it? VR technology has the power to make these sorts of fantastical possibilities a reality. Some Internet giants have already shown interest in adopting the technology to shopping, with the hope of changing the way people buy things online in the future.
On April 1, a particular piece of news stirred up followers of China's Internet industry. The story said that domestic e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding was planning to launch a shopping service based on VR technology within four months.
Because Alibaba on March 17 had announced the establishment of a VR lab and a "Buy +" plan designed to build the next generation shopping experience, many people had bought the news.
Although Alibaba confirmed with the Global Times on Wednesday that the news is nothing more than an April Fools' Day joke, the story set people's imaginations running.
What would happen if the world's largest online retailer adopted VR technology? Would it immediately alter the way Chinese people shop online?
Alibaba is not the first to show interest in pioneering the change - there have already been tryouts overseas.
Swedish furniture chain Ikea launched a VR app on Tuesday that enables consumers to explore a virtual kitchen with the HTC Vive, the VR headset developed by electronics maker HTC Corp and video game developer and distributor Valve Corp.
VR shopping will have a market, as it greatly enhances the traditional means of shopping. However, the market will remain small for a foreseeable future, analysts said, as e-commerce giants are only now starting to experiment with the technology.
"Many young people for sure would like to try VR shopping, just for the fun of it," said Zhang Yi, CEO with Shenzhen-based consultancy iiMedia Research.
However, it will take a long time for the retailers to fully embrace VR, as the technology itself has yet to mature, Zhang told the Global Times on Wednesday.
It will also take a lot of technological upgrades to create a virtualized world that resembles the real shopping environment, he noted.
VR technology will first be applied to online entertainment and advertising, Zhang said, because online entertainment has a clear need for visual excitement. UK game developer nDreams has already developed several VR-based games. Domestic game developer Perfect World Pictures Co also announced on March 31 that it launched the VR game Subnautica.
Liu Dingding, an analyst from Beijing-based Internet consultancy Sootoo, agreed that a few more breakthroughs need to be made in VR technology before it will be accepted by most online shoppers.
"Currently, you still need to wear a VR headset and then connect it to your phone or computer before you can experience VR shopping," he said. "That's too much trouble for most people."
Giants rushing in
VR has been considered the next segment in the Internet industry to see an explosive growth. International giants such as Google Inc, Apple Inc and Samsung have started to pour money into developing VR technology, and some of their products like the Samsung Gear VR are already available in the Chinese market.
Domestic Internet firms are also upping their ante in the sector. Besides Alibaba, social-networking giant Tencent Holdings announced its VR strategy in December 2015. The company said it aims to build a platform for VR technology-based gaming, video and social networking services.
Other companies such as Xiaomi Technology and streaming video company Le Holdings (Beijing) Co, better known as LeTV, have also launched VR products or announced plans to make VR products.
"Participation of these industry leaders would facilitate the growth of VR technology in China," Zhang from iiMedia told the Global Times on Wednesday.
A report from iiMedia in December 2015 showed that the market size of China's VR industry stood at around 1.54 billion yuan ($238 million) in 2015, and the sector is expected to grow by more than 250 percent to 5.66 billion yuan in 2016. VR device shipments in China stood around 500,000 units in 2015 and may top 1.2 million units this year, German consultancy GfK said in a report in February.
But despite the enthusiasm of Chinese Internet firms, analysts said that China still lags behind technically in this sector.
The prices of domestically produced VR devices are also much cheaper than similar products from overseas firms.
For instance, a VR headset launched by LeTV in December sells for only 149 yuan, and products from some smaller companies are even cheaper.
Domestic firms are all about entering the market as fast as possible, and their technology needs further honing, analysts said.
"I've tried some domestic VR handsets, and to be honest, they are worlds apart compared with VR products from industry leaders like Oculus," Liu from Sootoo told the Global Times on Wednesday.
But Zhang from iiMedia is more optimistic. "Chinese Internet giants have accumulated a lot of financial power in recent years. They are totally capable of competing with overseas firms in the VR sector," he said.