Due to the proliferation of the World Wide Web, people don’t as readily go outside for a shopping trip as they once used to. As Time reported back in May, it’s predicted that a third of American shopping malls will close in the coming years. That’s mostly due to the failings of major department stores like Macy’s and J.C. Penney, but also because people just don’t go to stores as much. With the shift to shopping through online retailers, the only missing fragment is the ability to try on clothes in a store. In a personal sense, that is, not through a virtual avatar, as was attempted through the French-produced app FITLE. It might not be an obvious question at this point, due to stores growing more obsolete, but is it possible that VR can overtake the tangible necessity of shopping in stores?
“[In VR] you lose a lot of the sensory stuff of clothes,” said Lea Albaugh, a game designer and creator of a tech-enabled couture fashion project. “Like when you’re wearing a twirly skirt, it’s great because you get to twirl in it. And I think you might lose some of that in the virtual realm.” Albaugh previously worked on the sewing machine-mechanized territory strategy game Threadsteading!, which was on display at Alt.Ctrl.GDC this past year. She also designs parser fiction games, and created the movable-couture project Clothing For Moderns, which worked against the atypical rigid structure of couture fashion.
“You lose a lot of the sensory stuff of clothes”
Albaugh labels herself as a VR pessimist, but sees a potential positive aspect in the realm of VR clothes shopping: to not have to look at yourself. “You manage to de-couple it a little bit, from your own body anxieties,” explained Albaugh. “I think a lot of people have a lot of thoughts about their actual body. So you gain not having to think about [it].” It’s a thought that myself, and I’m sure many others, can easily relate to. Sometimes, when I try on clothes in a store that are a little outside of my personal style, it becomes easy to overthink it. Thoughts like, “When will I ever wear this? This is too nice. Who am I kidding? This doesn’t even look good on me,” often swarm my brain. Whereas in VR, as Albaugh says, the virtual body separates you from your physical self. Body anxiety nearly disappears. Reactions can grow more into “I like this for what it looks like,” in lieu of a dressing room-bound “This isn’t for me.”
It’s worth considering this unique advantage of VR dress-up in comparison to its augmented reality counterpart—in which it’s possible to view virtual clothes on your own body. The same might be possible in VR, but most likely only via a mirror-like function in the 3D world. “Does it still feel like you’re wearing it, even if you can’t literally feel it on your skin?” questioned Albaugh. “But maybe that stuff is more malleable than I think. Maybe the actual feeling of fabric on your skin is less important than I think it is.”
In STYLY, a collaboration between independent Japanese fashion house Chloma and Physic VR Lab, the intersection between physical fashion and the digital world is blurred. In STYLY’s virtual shop, you can approach life-like 3D renderings of clothes, and view them from any angle. Everything is just as interactive as it would be in a physical store—except for the fact that you’re in a futuristic, vaporwave environment (complete with floating boulders, swimming dolphins, and an ocean). STYLY presents a new kind of future for VR shopping, a store that would otherwise be impossible to realize in reality. A store that can be painfully aestheticized, but create a wholly individual shopping experience.
There’s also vRetail, a Sixense and SapientNitro powered store that mirrors a more traditional shopping experience. Aiming to replicate brick-and-mortar shopping, the user can ogle shoes and even purchase them from inside the VR realm. A unique additive to the vRetail experience is that it’s social—it’s possible to shop with friends and family also addled with VR headsets, from anywhere else in the world.
In Keiichi Matsuda’s futuristic short film Hyper-Reality, everything we see in the world has morphed into an augmented reality user interface. Every mundane activity experienced by the short’s protagonist—from playing games to grocery shopping—is overwrought with seedy advertisements.
A store that would otherwise be impossible to realize in reality
If she were wealthy, she wouldn’t have to suffer through this. But here she is, a middle-class Colombian woman—an AR-user of the “freemium” variety—battling mind-numbing advertisements in her AR-shielded point-of-view, and even becoming subject to an eventual, terrifying hack. Matsuda’s technicolored, futuristic vision is deeply unsettling, but it might be a step closer to reality than one can initially imagine. A future that’s more mixed reality, than augmented.
Mixed reality is a bumbling term among the incessancy of augmented and virtual realities. Where Magic Leap and HoloLens lead the charge on this technology, mixed reality lies somewhere in between. It’s where physical and virtual worlds co-exist in the same space. Not plopped on top of the physical world as with augmented reality, nor purely digital like virtual reality. Perhaps the most grounded use of mixed reality is the use of 3D scanners to capture our actual environments and bring them into a virtual world.
As artist Michael Molitch-Hou wrote in an article for UploadVR, mixed reality has the potential to bring us terrifyingly closer to technology, and gamify our very lives. Potential examples of this he gave included putting your face onto a videogame character, and pulling up a 3D rendering of your own living room at an IKEA to see if the couch you’ve picked out fits. Mixed reality will have the potential to make our shopping lives more “convenient.” And it’s not too wild to imagine shopping at a rare, future-desolate mall. Envisioning clothes squeezing into your ever-cramped closet, too scared to try them on for yourself. Or, even taking a 3D rendering of yourself, and slapping clothes on to it in a store like a classic KISS doll dress-up game. Essentially, the way the future’s going, you’ll become a game yourself.