By Eric C. Jansen
You’re sitting on your sofa, wearing virtual reality goggles and waving your way through a shopping trip. Your digital avatar, akin to those of human characters in the blockbuster movie “Avatar,” is walking from store to store in an online VR business district, browsing virtual representations of real merchandise. After entering a clothing store, your avatar tries on apparel likely to fit because you’ve done a full body scan at home and uploaded that data. With each fitting, your avatar walks around (mugging and preening, if you like), showing the flesh-and-blood you how you’d look in the outfits.
This isn’t a scene from James Cameron’s next movie. Rather, it’s a likely retailing scenario over the next decade, as much of the required technology—and its commercialization—already exists or is well along the path to viability.
Already, VR and/or augmented reality (in which virtual elements are introduced into images of real environments) retailing efforts include in-store virtual tours of rooms full of branded furniture at major department stores. After a pilot program, Macy’s has announced plans to offer this wow feature at some 90 stores by early this year. And some Nordstrom’s locations now have VR-assisted apparel shops.
Prospects for online VR shopping might seem far more sanguine for big retailers than for little guys, but this presumptive dominance is now threatened by blockchain technology, which is expected to go a long way toward leveling the playing field and spurring global competition from start-ups. Blockchain—and the cryptocurrency payments it enables—will allow small ventures to efficiently take products directly to consumers and contain costs. Also dinging the big boys would be a diminished emphasis on brand names resulting from the sheer volume of unbranded products available through the democratizing market effects of blockchain.
Cryptocurrency, which uses blockchain (in most cases) as its transmission vehicles, is only natural for the anticipated robust global VR retail environment because it’s borderless.
Developers are working on applications to meld blockchain tech with VR. These solutions will be huge because they’ll enable small businesses from different cultures, who may have little capital, to take their goods global on VR platforms built on blockchain’s decentralized ledger. Blockchain’s perfect audit trail is wholly accountable through the verifiability of secure smart contracts, lending credibility to retailers and building trust with consumers.
Blockchain is being positioned as an integral part of emerging online VR shopping platforms or shopping districts currently under construction. An example is Decentraland, whose name embodies the founding blockchain principle of enabling decentralized authority to disintermediate central authorities deemed by blockchain proponents to have too much power. Unlike malls, accessible only to corporate entities that can pay high rents but also have a strong web presence, these platforms will be highly accessible to non-bricks-and-mortar players who lack substantial capital.
To some extent, these dynamics already exist in non-VR online shopping. But, as the use of VR is expected to be an extremely powerful retailing tool and, as blockchain will enable widespread participation, these forces will be more pronounced. Also helping smaller merchants more will be the lower costs enabled by crypto-currency. A central tenet of crypto-currency is to disintermediate banks (a central authority), as it requires no banks for transactions—unlike credit cards that charge transaction fees and create waiting periods for merchants to receive revenue.
The ultimate marriage of VR and blockchain/crypto has significant implications for:
• Retailing stocks. Depending on how they play their cards regarding the coming VR/blockchain shopping environment, major retailers could flourish or flounder.
• Advisory services. If your avatar could try on clothes, why couldn’t it visit the avatar of a financial advisor to vet credentials and ask questions? After some advisors start projecting themselves virtually, others will have to follow suit to compete and deal with this eventual impact of blockchain on the financial services industry, among many.
• Tech stocks. As with many blockchain functions, VR shopping on blockchain (and VR itself) will require far more powerful personal computers than most peoples have at home today. If VR shopping develops enough allure, it could drive the market for new, more powerful PC models at higher prices that will eventually come down—as occurred in the PC market after the Internet first became accessible.
VR applications are virtually (pun intended) unlimited. For example, the current trend toward online learning presents potential inroads for VR classrooms, where students’ avatars could ask questions and take exams to get real degrees. And some analysts are projecting online virtual casinos. These virtual venues could spider out across the globe efficiently via blockchain.
There are some technical barriers to VR/blockchain convergence, including the current slow popular adoption of crypto-currency. Though crypto doesn’t have to be mainstream for VR shopping to catch fire, reluctance to use it could limit the market. Yet, in a scenario of the tail wagging the dog, the cool allure of VR shopping might increase crypto-currency adoption. Surveys show that millennials tend to distrust banks, inclining them toward crypto-currency.
And though bitcoin has had wild valuation swings, proponents point to its potential to go mainstream. Further, a VR blockchain startup, High Fidelity, recently launched a stable coin, High Fidelity Coin, pegged to the U.S. dollar—creating a crypto-currency with potential to alleviate concerns of virtual merchants and shoppers alike.
Another hurdle to convergence is the limited transaction throughput of blockchain/crypto—a technical challenge being addressed through substantial venture capital flowing to development firms. Another obstacle is the projected inability of shoppers to travel virtually from one VR environment (or site) to another. A consortium of emerging platform entities has formed to seek ways for shoppers to do so.
Generally, blockchain’s vast potential for connecting customers and vendors, and its natural fit in the VR context, represent such tremendous commercial potential that developers have incentive aplenty to devise solutions in a big hurry.
Thus, blockchain will likely be taking goods to the world via VR in the next decade. Then, like Sam Worthington’s and Zoe Saldana’s characters in “Avatar,” shoppers’ digital doppelgangers will amble around VR business districts. They’ll browse furniture, try on clothes and make purchases, and eventually, perhaps speak with advisors and other financial professionals, and maybe take in a show.
Humans won’t be able to tell whether a sweater worn by their avatars itches until it arrives (triggering a blockchain return), but unlike the human characters in “Avatar” who literally felt their avatars’ pain, flesh-and-blood shoppers won’t feel a thing when another avatar’s car hits them as they cross a virtual street.
Eric C. Jansen, ChFC, is the founder, president, and chief investment officer of Westborough, Mass.-based Finivi Inc, an SEC-Registered Investment Advisor. He is the founder of BlockSocial.com, a blockchain technology media site.