The Online and Offline Worlds Are Merging Faster Than You Think

Will these glasses look good on me?  Does this outfit make me look fat?  Would this sofa look right in my living room?  Every single day millions and millions of online shoppers around the world ask themselves these types of questions.  Today consumers need to wait at least a few days, post-purchase, to answer those questions.  That angst leads to lower conversion numbers for online retailers.

But as the video above shows, I can now "try on" different types of sunglasses in a virtual environment.  Using an ordinary iPad, a Glasses.com representative at TED took 15 quick pictures of my head at different angles.  Using computation in the cloud, these pictures were rapidly compiled to create a photo-realistic 3-D representation of my head - accurate enough to watch individual gray hairs rotate past on the iPad’s retina display.

Other companies are using photographic sensors to scan the real world.  Matterport has built indoor scanning capabilities that are accurate to fractions of an inch.  The level of accuracy is stunning, and unprecedented - check out these examples.  And the relentless march of Moore’s Law means that before long, these scans will even be able to map the dust particles in the air at that moment in time.

This is terrible news for brick-and-mortar retailers.  Those retailers used to be able to take solace in the idea that they could at least serve as “showrooms” for merchandise, where customers could come in and try out goods - and then buy impulsively.  But the reality is that for apparel, people generally don’t enjoy changing rooms, or putting on clothes that other people have also tried on.  And if the retailer doesn’t have your size, you’re unlikely to buy.  With the virtual reality options improving at a high rate, the online “try it on” options are becoming superior alternatives to the offline retailer options.

Do you really want to go to Sunglass Hut to try on sunglasses that hundreds of other people (some likely sick) have tried on?  Or do you want to be able to quickly find the glasses that look best on you?

Do you really want to go to Home Depot, grab a color wheel with 100’s of different paint colors, and try to figure out what your living room will look like with different shades of paint at different times of day?  Or guess what a new sofa will look like in that room?  Or try to figure out which fabric to purchase?

Yes, these are all first-world problems for consumers.  But they’re big opportunities for online retailers that figure out how to leverage them in new ways, and the beginning of the end for physical retailers that have avoided much disruption to date.