November 26, 2019 by Chuck Palmer

The Mixed Reality of Retail Today: The Possibilities of AR & VR

Originally presented at InfoComm 19, June 13, 2019 Orlando, Florida

Retail Reality

Virtual Reality is an oxymoron.  There is reality and there is not. The possibilities of augmented reality and virtual reality lie in the infinite continuum between what is real and what is not. 

In retail today, augmented reality technology is being put to greater use than virtual reality.  Each has its proper application.  Before we get into that, we should look at some fundamentals of human perception.

What makes an experience real?

  • Senses
  • Emotion
  • Meaning
  • Memory

To simplify, we can look at our experience as a process that starts with our senses and emotions connecting to create meaning and if that experience is important enough, our minds store components in our memories. Memories are made up of a variety of combinations of senses, emotions and meaning.

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Stanford University is conducting research to define how VR effects perception.  They created two VR experiences to learn how humans learn about and create empathy for people in drastically different situations than their own.

Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience immerses the user in the daily issues and stresses that lead up to a person becoming homeless. Created as a first-person perspective, the user feels the stress and impact of small events leading up to the drastic change of losing one’s home.

Becoming Homeless

The 1000 Cut Journey demonstrates what it is like to be a young African American man, being treated by a culture that immediately sees him not for who he is, but for what they think he represents.

The 1000 Cut Journey

Becoming Homeless and The 1000 Cut Journey show that VR isn’t just a gimmick, that it can be used artfully to tell compelling and challenging stories.

AR & VR in Retail

Ikea & Sephora use AR as a bridge between mobile and in-store experience.

The furniture industry has more than perfected the use of AR in their sales process. It was one of the first product categories in which it made a great deal of sense to invest in the technology; visualizing how furniture, furnishings, and major appliances in one’s home without the hassle of going to a store and hoping you’ll like it.

Like many other things in retail there were a few innovative leaders who perfected approaches and technologies and followed suit with similar proven approaches. The fragmented nature of the home furnishing industries offered a variety of technology companies a market play in.


Growth in the use of augmented reality in color cosmetics hasn't been so widespread. innovative companies like Sephora invested in innovation labs in which proprietary technology is developed. Sephora’s  Virtual Artist is a combination of technologies: facial recognition, layered AR, and integration with in-store systems and experience.  This has created a unique competitive advantage for the company; and because they are so few players in the cosmetics category we haven't seen a variety or depth of competitive forces that would fuel widespread innovation.


Emerging Reality

AR & VR is being used to immerse consumers in specific experiences. Marriott is one of the few hospitality companies that have invested deeply in innovation. It's important to note that innovation does not equal technology. In this case the folks at Marriott looked at their landscape and saw opportunities to leverage a variety of technologies in order to bring future experience for to life for consumers. With the Marriott Hotels Teleporter, they are simply offering users an experience that evokes fun and a sense of wonder that comes from travel.  This activation is one of many that came out of their innovation lab; later activations focus on specific products or resorts.

Marriott Teleporter


This NASA- branded notebook gives users a glimpse into the wonder of space travel and exploration. It is both educational and entertaining by adding a layer of augmented reality on top of a standard notebook with science facts included.  innocent It demonstrates how AR can be an enhancement to a typical object, making it something completely new.


Louis Vuitton

This Louis Vuitton brand activation is essentially about the technology rather than the brand. In this case LVMH is using SnapChat technology to create an interesting moment attached to the launch of a new handbag targeted at younger potential customers.

Louis Vuitton

Tom Ford Beauty

The Tom Ford scent bar is one of the most unique examples of leveraging a variety of technologies to create a sense of reality in the mind of the consumer. The scent bar allows the user to browse essential aromas and provide information about their preferences.   The system then suggests particular Tom Ford products. The system uses a combination of visuals and scent to guide the consumer to their purchase decision.

The Void

The Void is a next-level immersive virtual reality gaming experience. Players don a headset and backpack that allows them to interact with a virtual and physical environment simultaneously. The game play in the headset maps to the physical environment obstacles like walls corridors columns, it also provides a sensory experience with wind and smells synchronized to suspend the players perception of reality.

Next Level Reality: Star Wars Galaxy's Edge

The ultimate in virtual reality is the creation of full-scale physical environment with a layer of technology that enhances the guest experience. It is the inverse of carrying technology with you. Visitors to Disney parks live, breathe and interact with environments taken from the Star Wars universe. In this case we have extraordinary experiences such as food and interacting with characters and creating adventure stories of their own. 

As evidenced by the fan quotes below, for some visitors these are highly emotional experiences. The cultural phenomenon of Star Wars lends itself to this sort of experience because there is a significant group of consumers who not only will spend the money to do this but also have a deep emotional tie to the world.

“Flying the Millennium Falcon, and getting to pull that Hyperspace lever. Having a bizarre alien cocktail at the Cantina, building my own Lightsaber, and hearing Master Yoda’s call to action as the blade illuminated, the music swelled and my eyes unexpectedly filled with tears.”

“I was moved to tears because the masterful design and careful storytelling of these new, cutting-edge experiences slowly and elegantly and intimately revealed to me how potent this mythology was to me already, deep down, and how hopeful and reassured it makes me feel as it reappears throughout my life.”


Chuck Palmer, Senior Advisor



About Chuck Palmer

Chuck Palmer is a retail and consumer behavior expert. He has more than 25 years experience across the worlds of online and offline retail, retail strategy, consumer consulting and digital merchandising. He focuses on the nexus of consumer behavior, technology and creativity. He is owner and principal strategist at ConsumerX, a retail consultancy.