When Daniel Beauchamp was hunting for a new car, he skipped trips to dealerships by using virtual and augmented reality to test vehicles from a makeshift driver's seat he set up in his home with a few chairs.
The head of virtual reality at Ottawa-based e-commerce company Shopify brought out the technology again when furnishing and renovating his home, using it to figure out where to place couches and tables without having to put in the manual labour.
While most shoppers still flock to dealerships or grab their measuring tape to see what furniture fits a spot, Beauchamp's creative use of such technology signals how the masses might start using virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) to navigate the retail world in the future.
And Shopify, which is experimenting with several applications of the technology, hopes to be at the forefront of the retail revolution.
"AR and VR will fundamentally change the way we shop," said Beauchamp. "Shopping experiences that use AR that allow you to preview products in your home before buying them are things that are available now and more and more will be coming out."
Shopify hopes the AR and VR-based shopping experience it has created could surmount one of the market's biggest barriers: getting customers to buy products without insisting on first seeing them in-person.
It joins a host of other retailers experimenting with different ways of diffusing shoppers' hesitation – from 3D scan mirrors in stockless stores to identify the correct size to apps that allow shoppers to manipulate photos of the product and themselves or their homes.
One survey conducted by industry research site Retail Dive suggests that more than 55 per cent of shoppers visit stores before buying online.
Virtual and augmented reality technology will benefit both e-commerce businesses and shoppers, especially those in rural or remote areas, for whom it is not as practical to visit a store before buying, said David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the University of Toronto.
"The reality of online retailing is that it is a good place to shop for people who have seen or experienced a product at a friend's house or at an actual retail store," Soberman said.
"Some people don't want to pay money for something until they've held it in their hand."
To conquer a consumer's hesitation to buy before trying, Shopify has developed technology that allows shoppers to browse products in an online store from wherever they are and virtually position the items, such as a table or shelf, in the space where they're standing.
Once virtually placed, the product appears to-scale and the consumer can get up close to look inside items with an opening, like a vase, or view intricate but minuscule details like stitching on clothing. Consumers can even step inside larger items such as a tent.
Shopify has tested the functionality with home decor and lifestyle brand Magnolia Market, owned by HGTV star Joanna Gaines and featuring products seen on her "Fixer Upper" show.
It's also developing technology that lets shoppers wander around a virtual store by using a mobile phone or tablet to peek at product displays and shelves of merchandise, which customers can swivel to see from every angle, from the comfort of their home or wherever else they may be.
A third iteration will introduce a salesperson wearing a VR and AR headset.
"They could be anywhere in the world and they could magically teleport into your space, actually see the room that you are in, make suggestions on what products are best for you, talk to you about products, answer any questions you might have and help you make that perfect buying decision," said Beauchamp.
Such technology could disrupt the apparel and cosmetics industry, which have already started experimenting with consumer-based AR and VR applications.
Clothing brands Timberland and Topshop have experimented with a virtual fitting room, Lacoste and Converse's apps let users test out how sneakers would look on their feet and U.K.-based cosmetics brand Charlotte Tilbury has an in-store, AR-enabled "magic mirror" that allows shoppers to experiment with makeup for their eyes, lips and skin by superimposing it on their face when they look into the mirror.
In mid-March, Paris-based cosmetics giant L'Oreal even purchased Toronto-based startup Modiface, which 100 brands are using to let customers try beauty products or complete skin diagnoses via mobile app, online or in-store AR mirrors.
Research released in September by communications company Digital Bridge said a third of consumers would be more likely to buy something after using mixed/augmented reality to preview products, but more than half think retailers are failing to take full advantage of the technology now available to them.
Soberman thinks a lot of people still view the technology as being something they can only use in specialized booths or with VR headsets that many consumers do not own.
Shopify's Beauchamp recognized the "cost prohibitive" and still primitive headsets could be a challenge for adoption.
However, he's confident that, in time, such devices "will become more affordable, sleeker in design and more accessible."
"What we need to see is more experiences being built, so more consumers are getting use to this type of technology," he said.
"We will get to a stage where consumers are going to begin to expect to shop that way."