This prototype combines embodied cognition with grocery shopping in VR. It allows the user to experience data directly through their body to shop for groceries more intentionally and intuitively.
At SixerVR, we prototype and research new media formats. We wanted to know--what kind of shopping can be done in VR that would be impossible in a store? How could we totally reimagine “online” shopping using extended reality tools? When we thought about this intersection, some obvious affordances came to mind, like being able to view and handle a product in a realistic way before purchasing, or listing pricing or discounts in an instantaneous way. However, these were just ways of mimicking the real store experience as closely as possible, or improving it slightly. We wanted to go beyond this and imagine what retail formats would be native to VR.
First question: why?
First though, why redesign grocery retail? Why shop for groceries in VR anyway? To begin with, the grocery retail space is already under strain. Thanks to inroads made by the meal kit industry, Whole Foods has started reordering some displays around ingredients necessary for meals. Also, only 15% of people say they enjoy grocery shopping. Couple that with trends in recurring purchases, automated orders, home delivery and more, and we see an industry not only digitizing but transforming the way people shop and think about shopping, from grocery-as-warehouse to grocery-as-service. The following affordances are unique to VR retail, vs. conventional retail or eCommerce, and align with that shift toward providing a service rather than just accessing goods or information.
New affordances for VR Retail
New ways of experiencing data:
One great power of virtual reality is to represent complex information in a simple way. This is very important in the world of big data analytics. There is information everywhere, but there is so much of it that it is overwhelming, and it doesn’t, in the end, help us make better decisions. We chose a grocery store for our example because it is a shopping situation where many different considerations effect purchasing dynamically over time, but the product set is recognizable and routine. In a grocery store, people don’t have the time to examine complex dashboards, graphs, percentages and labels to make buying decision. However, we are forced to in order to navigate our values and needs regarding health, sustainability, and cost.
There is a lot of research about how we think with our bodies and surrounding environments, something that researchers call “embodied cognition.” We wanted to create an experience that brought this to life and showed how we could use virtual reality to create a shopping experience beyond informational popups and AR labeling. By relating complex information to a body’s natural movements, we could imagine helping people make decisions without digesting hundreds of labels.
Embedding values and data into bodily movement:
We wanted to create a filter for people that represented common purchasing considerations (nutrition, sustainability, and cost) in a creative way that wasn’t just an informational pop-up. We decided to use “reach” as this filter. Depending on how different items relate to these categories, we made them move farther away from the shopper. In other words, if you choose a nutrition filter, it moves cookies far back on the shelf, so it is literally more difficult to reach them. This is what we mean by embodied cognition--data experienced through bodily movement instead of just intellectual input. By making it physically more difficult for people to reach things that don’t relate to their values, we created an environment of choice and agency, (people can still reach the cookies if they really want to) while nudging them toward choices that align more closely with their long-term goals and ethics.
Technological innovations always happen in an interrelated way with other technologies, and VR is no exception. This prototype interface for shopping in VR would need to be connected to a complex backend for logistics and data to keep it accurate and up to date, and to actually get the items to the shopper when they’ve finished and paid. Almost no category is more complicated for this than groceries and produce, because people are going to use the food to feed themselves and their families. Illustratively, Walmart found that gig workers aren’t sufficient to pick produce for online grocery, it actually requires full-time grocery pickers to meet shoppers’ specifications. The retail experience of the future will be comprised of virtual and analog, visible and invisible changes that will move us into an entirely transformed experience of shopping and retail.
Our goal at SixerVR is to think beyond “horseless carriages”— that is, to not focus on bringing old modalities into new mediums, and instead look at VR-native interaction possibilities that address latent but emerging user needs. We hope this video and article have demonstrated the potency of this way of work and research and hope you engage with us in the future.