Road to the Metaverse: Visual Commerce’s Past, Present and Future

December 21, 2022
Jake Irlam-Hughes

Humans are visual creatures by nature. Visual information has unparalleled influence on our thoughts, feelings, wants, desires and ultimately our outward behaviours. Immersive technologies such as AR and 3D shopping experiences are gaining huge amounts of traction amongst the biggest names, and not just because they’re shiny and new (AR has been gaining popularity year on year since it debuted in eCommerce in the early 2010s), but because they’re demonstrably influencing shopper behaviour to the benefit of retailers, brands and the shopper themselves.

Lessons from the two-dimensional past

Before we look at the impact of 3D experiences, let’s draw on some learnings from the not-too-distant past involving 2D images.

In the early days of the web, Craigslist dominated online shopping with its basic UI and single, grainy photograph (if you were lucky). Craigslist hasn’t changed much, but the rest of the web did, and Craigslist has paid the price, plunging in popularity in comparison to the platforms that prioritised pictures.

Over the years the power of high quality product imagery has been proven to strongly influence shopper behaviour time and time again. Another infamous example comes from Airbnb’s early days. When the founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia noticed a lack of growth in the locale they had the highest hopes for, New York City, they dug a little deeper and noticed that the hosts were using unappealing photos of messy, dimly lit apartments taken on their low resolution camera phones. Suspecting that the below-par visuals were the cause of the slow growth, they personally rented a $5000 camera and took professional quality photos of half the NYC properties. In the following weeks the places with the professional photos were outperforming their badly photographed counterparts by 300%.

Etsy, the immensely popular online marketplace, regards good quality product imagery as the most important factor to the success of a listing. Their study showed that 90% of Etsy shoppers regard the product images as “extremely important” or “very important” to a purchase decision. That’s even more important than the price of the item!

Visual commerce is taking over, and we shouldn’t be surprised because the scientific literature tells us that it was inevitable. A popular factoid in the marketing world is that visual information is “processed 60,000x times faster than text” and whilst the scale may be inaccurate, the principle is absolutely correct. More substantiated claims place the stat somewhere between 6x - 600x quicker, which is still massively significant and all but proven by the habits that continue to emerge as visualisation-enabling technology becomes ubiquitous.

“Vision trumps all senses. Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.”

Brain Rules, John Medina

The influence of 3D so far and what’s still to come

If the rise of 2D images and video has caused such seismic changes to consumer behaviour, what can we expect of immersive 3D experiences? Well the ripples of influence are already there to inspect, some of which are quickly becoming waves, with industry leaders predicting an almighty tsunami.

The education and training sector has recognised the power of AR and is beginning to reap the benefits of immersive technology. The ability to enhance the physical environment by imbuing it with interactive and informative elements allows students to engage for longer periods of time and to improve their comprehension of the concepts presented. 10% of schools in the US currently utilise AR in some capacity, with that number expected to grow rapidly once the much-requested funding becomes available.

For most of us the term ‘3D experience’ will take our minds immediately to video games, and with good reason; because by 2023, 3 billion of us will be active gamers, cumulatively generating $150 billion revenue worldwide. It’s not just kids that are drawn to this type of 3D interactive experience. 3 out of 5 gamers are adults, many of which are tech natives who have been playing games since they were kids. These people are comfortable navigating 3D environments and they’re now looking for familiar experiences when doing all sorts of things, including shopping online.

So how does all this translate into consumer preferences and more importantly, behaviours?

  • 71% of consumers say they would shop more often if they used AR.
  • 61% of consumers say they prefer retailers with AR experiences.
  • Businesses are following suit, investing $18.8 billion into AR and VR in 2020, a 78% increase on the previous year.
  • Consumers are 11 times more likely to buy furniture if they have had the opportunity to see how it looks in their home using AR
  • Consumers are 3.4 times more likely to buy []
  • There are 20% fewer returns when consumers can experience products more holistically with AR
"I do think that a significant portion of the population of developed countries, and eventually all countries, will have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you."

Tim Cook, Apple Inc.

Enter, ‘the Metaverse’. For now it’s amorphous, but before long its impact on our lives will undoubtedly be enormous. Billions of dollars of investment is pouring into the development of the controversial virtual world, with Meta placing the biggest bet of them all, relegating its famous Facebook brand name back in 2021 in a clear signal of intent to the world. It’s likely that we’ll see the metaverse combine 3D, AR, VR, XR, blockchain, AI and many more powerful technologies. When such disruptive concepts are introduced into human society the outcome is impossible to predict. So businesses, especially retailers, are advised to start experimenting and learning now or risk being left behind.

What can retailers do?

Harnessing these emerging trends and technologies can be daunting for retail businesses who need to maintain a focus on the day-to-day and often don’t have time or resources to innovate internally. 52% of retailers believe they are not prepared to integrate AR into their retail experience, and only 1% of retailers claimed to use AR in 2019. So there is still opportunity for retailers to steal a march on the competition, stand out from the crowd and create deeper engagement with their shoppers by offering 3D and AR experiences.

Choosing the right partner is key. At Fixtuur Visual Commerce, we work closely with leaders in forward-thinking retail businesses to understand the challenges that are being faced and how we can tackle them together through visual commerce solutions.

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