If people ever needed virtual ways to shop, it’s now. That’s kept tech futurist Cathy Hackl busy helping clients ranging from fashion brands to the military build new experiences and worlds using augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), spatial computing and the metaverse.
When the founder and CEO of the Futures Intelligence Group thinks What the Future, she sees the lines blurring between the virtual and physical shopping worlds.
Kate MacArthur: Digital shopping, including AR, VR and the larger universe of technologies you call XR have accelerated in the pandemic. Do you think this trend will stick?
Cathy Hackl: The use of AR apps is going to stick post-pandemic in the sense that it’s convenient for the consumer. As a consumer, how much does this facilitate something for me? How does it reduce the friction? So I think it depends on how useful the technology is. It’ll be interesting with Gen Z and the younger generations who were born digital with mobile phones and in this virtual space. Just like they’re going to keep playing games like Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite, they’re going to keep using XR for shopping.
MacArthur: Are there clues for what technology has the most promise to go mass in the next three to five years?
Hackl: When I was growing up, my brother’s friends would save all their allowance to buy Air Jordans. My kids, on the other hand, spend most of their money on digital goods. My kids’ social networks are the games they’re playing right now. That’s their social network. So they’re going to want to shop there as well, because that’s where they spend time with their friends socializing.
MacArthur: How might that change expectations for the overall shopping experience?
Hackl: When we go back to retail stores it’ll be because it’s experiential, a world of wonder and a different experience. The main shift that we have to change is that with younger generations. Their physical and their virtual personas are equally important. You look at everything around you. Stuff has volume, everything’s 3D, it’s volumetric. When we move to AR and VR glasses, am I really going to want to see flat screens in front of me? Probably not. That’s why I think it gets interesting when you can actually see a digital twin or representation of yourself, modeling clothes and trying to see how they would fit on you. Then you choose what you want and it arrives to you in a digital way and then a physical way as well.
MacArthur: Many brands have dabbled with AR and VR already. How do you see it evolving?
Hackl: We went from little experiments to companies, especially in the beauty side, realizing that it has to be part of their offering. Whether it’s hair color, nail polish or makeup. L’Oreal launched the digital-only makeup line that you could only wear on Zoom. If you’re buying something in the app and you can kind of see how cool you look or see yourself wearing certain makeup in a lens, but then you can actually get the makeup at home, I think that’s great. You start to see this move toward combining the digital space but actually getting a physical product.
MacArthur: Where does this go next?
Hackl: I see augmented reality as a full customer journey experience. From the pre-purchase and understanding whether it’s something I saw on Snapchat or Instagram, to the point of purchase when I’m actually purchasing on my phone because I use the AR. Then post-purchase, you can leverage augmented reality and potentially virtual humans for customer service.
MacArthur: How so?
Hackl: You see the Ikea furniture and you see the AR model in your house, and then you purchase it whether it’s in the store or online. And then imagine if afterward, you actually get to see a hologram of someone putting together a piece of furniture in front of you in AR and you can follow the steps. There are lots of opportunities with AR to be part of the full customer experience—kind of a full funnel perception.
MacArthur: The pandemic has raised the bar for seamless omnichannel shopper experiences. How challenging will it be to incorporate virtual into the mix?
Hackl: It will be challenging. There are still limitations. I think the missing piece here is that, right now, we’re consuming our content through the computer, the flat screen and the flat phone in my hand. But we’re going to glasses. What does the channel look like when it’s actually someone’s reality? That’s going to be interesting. I see more omnichannel being turned on its head once the world becomes machine-readable, likable, searchable and clickable.
MacArthur: When do you see this happening?
It’ll happen this decade. There are so many components to it. It’s not only the glasses. You’re going to need true 5G or 6G. You’re going to need edge computing. That’s going to take a while, but you can see the glimpses of the metaverse and what’s to come right now.
MacArthur: How big of a leap is it for brands to enter the virtual shopping world?
Hackl: That’s actually thinking through how do you enter a digital goods space? How are people paying for things in the digital economy, the digital direct-to-avatar economy? Are they paying with fiat cash or are they paying with non-fungible tokens [cryptocurrency tokens that are unique and can’t be used elsewhere]? You start by doing activations in-game as a brand. Then the important part, what you’re alluding to is combining what I call phygital, combining the physical and the digital.
MacArthur: What do you see as the future of the metaverse for retail?
Hackl: Let me give you an example from a music standpoint. I think the numbers were [rapper and singer] Travis Scott made $20 million when he did this Fortnite concert. The concert lasted less than 20 minutes. There are little glimpses of the future that are showing where some of these things are going with these new generations.