Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba plans to open a demonstration shop this month and could roll out the technology broadly by the end of the year.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd is working on introducing virtual reality technology, or simply VR, into online shopping. The ecommerce giant’s 400 million customers will soon be able to buy products from stores all over the world, by wearing a VR helmet or glasses designed to simulate being in a physical store.
Alibaba says it plans to launch a demonstration VR store by the end of this month and could launch a large-scale rollout by the end of this year.
At a press briefing in Shanghai last week, an Alibaba representative wearing a Vive VR helmet from HTC Corp. of Taiwan showed how a shopper could take a tour of a three-dimensional digital store. The demonstration showed a robotic store associate talking to the visitor and recommending new products. Shoppers can rotate products they see in the virtual store by moving the controller that connects to the Vive helmet and even ask for a model to show how the product works or is worn. Users can also use the controller to click the buy button to purchase the item in the digital store.
“VR is a great way to demonstrate products or services, especially for some categories, like furniture and travel products.” Zhuang Zhuoran, senior director of mobile at Alibaba, said at the briefing. “It also adds more fun to shopping.”
Alibaba has set up a facility, its Gnome Magic Lab, in March, to develop software that would enable merchants to build virtual stores more easily.
“Converting a real product to its digital, three-dimensional equivalent today may cost several hundred yuan (about $50). The cost is high, and we hope to reduce it to several yuan (about $1) in the future.” Zhuang says.
A shopper who wants to test the virtual reality will need VR gear, which ranges in price from $20 to $1,000. VR products are hot at the moment, with consumers buying 300,000 units of VR gear on Alibaba’s Chinese online marketplaces each month, Alibaba says.
Zhuang says in the future Alibaba may send consumers VR gear for free so that they can try out the new way of shopping.
Alibaba also has invested in VR technology startups. For example, earlier this year Alibaba led the $794 million funding round for U.S.-based startup Magic Leap Inc.