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Alibaba uses virtual reality to make shopping more interactive

Buy+ allows users to select apparel and accessories with assistance from a robotic shopping assistant

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 9:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 July, 2016, 10:52pm

E-commerce giant Alibaba launched its virtual reality shopping programme during the weekend amid a global VR frenzy, but warned that commercialisation of the VR technology was still some time away.

Alibaba’s Buy+ will allow users to select apparel and accessories with the help of a 360-degree panoramic view and assistance from a robotic shopping assistant.

It is still a technology that is being explored and at present has no business goals, said Zhuang Zhuoran, the mobile technology director of Alibaba.

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“An initial market for VR and AR (augmented reality) is yet to be developed [in China]. The industry needs time more time to mature,” said Zhuang, who’s also in charge of the company’s newly established VR/AR research lab. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.

Chris Tung, Alibaba’s chief marketing officer, said the company is helping consumers to look into the future by bringing in cutting-edge technologies. However, the adoption of these would need to wait till the whole industry matures and only then can Alibaba bring VR shopping to the market, he said.

“Mobile Taobao succeeded after smart phones matured. Likewise, when leading VR device makers are all here, it’s our time [to use and promote the technology],” Tung said.

From a consumer perspective, high hardware costs and limited improvements in shopping experiences for many types of goods are hindering the technology’s acceptance for shopping.

Xu Jing, a 25-year-old visitor to the Taobao Maker Festival where Buy+ debuted, said it was a brand new experience for an online shopping enthusiast like her.

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But she hesitated after learning that she would need a high configuration computer and a headset worth thousands of yuan – the headset Taobao uses for Buy+, Vive made by Taiwanese company HTC, is priced at nearly 7,000 yuan (HK$8,115).

“I would love to have a try in a demonstration shop, but I don’t think I will spend so much just to experience a new form of shopping at home… unless they can design the model in my own shape and show how a piece of clothing, say a bra, fits me,” she said.

Lei Liang, a technology enthusiast who visited the festival, also believed it’s still not worth the cost as for products, such as skincare and food, purchases through VR devices seems unnecessary.

“Even for clothes and bags all that VR does is to allow shoppers to wear the product before purchase. It cannot be touched, however. In reality, people care about the texture also while selecting such kinds of products,” he added.

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Alibaba admitted that instead of concrete benefits like the ones mobile commerce has brought, the VR technology only represents its “imagination of the future”.

Zhuang said the company would stay away from hardware and stick with software as always, and besides shopping, it would apply the new technology to entertainment, but not games.

Alibaba launched its VR strategy in March by setting up the GnomeMagic Lab to develop related technologies.

So far the lab has completed several hundreds of product models for Buy+. It was a small portion considering there are nearly a billion items offered on Taobao today.

It’s now developing standardised tools for brands and merchants selling on Taobao to build their own 3D inventories, in the hope that one day businesses can set up VR stores as quickly and easily as they can a web page.

Consumers buy 300,000 VR units on Alibaba’s online marketplaces every month, the company said previously. There’s no data for those sold offline.

There are about 100 kinds of VR devices in the Chinese market, mostly low-end ones similar to Google’s Cardboard, according to the Science and Technology Daily.

Alibaba is just one of the e-commerce firms that are embracing the latest technology. In May, US online shopping giant eBay teamed up with Australian department store Myer to build the world’s first VR store.