The coronavirus crisis has clearly stoked interest in virtual reality, as brands flock to digital tools in the face of lockdowns and shelter-at-home orders.

Among the latest to join the ranks are brands affiliated with New York Fashion Week. Dozens of these labels are looking to go beyond social commerce or a mere livestream, hoping to deliver immersive, evocative experiences that can mirror the real thing.

They may have found the answer in the form of Youcan, a San Francisco-based virtual reality company that touts the ability to re-create real-world stores in VR.

According to Youcan chief executive officer and founder Antonio Trincao, he’s nearing deals with as many as 65 brands on new digital pop-up stores, and others are in the works for VR fashion runway shows and longer-term VR setups.

“We’ve already got two customers for New York Fashion Week that are using our technology,” Trincao told WWD. “They want to replicate the pop-up store and events and the physical space in a virtual format, and sell clothes in this new way instead of selling through an e-commerce platform.”

What separates Trincao’s work from traditional notions of VR is that it works in a web browser. So while it’s viewable in a headset, it doesn’t require one.

That’s no small consideration, considering that the techified face gear has posed as much of an obstacle to VR’s ascendance as a facilitator.

Oculus Quest headset and controllers.  Courtesy image

VR’s Promise

Virtual reality has been on a slow burn for years, as tech makers worked on refining their hardware and software. They know that asking people to slap on huge, expensive goggles is not easy. But neither is figuring out how to cut the cables and shrink components without losing quality or incurring massive costs.

Consumer adoption hinges on solving these sorts of issues. Last year, Facebook-owned VR company Oculus appeared to make significant progress with its Oculus Quest — a cable-free headset that allows users to walk around in VR environments.

While the company hasn’t disclosed sales figures, the device — which was priced at $399 for the base model — sold out across many retail channels during the 2019 holiday season. Independent sellers in places like eBay, Craigslist and other outlets began offering them at two, three and even four times the original retail price.

Today, devices like Oculus Quest seem perfectly matched for the COVID-19-induced quarantine, as people stuck at home reach out for entertainment and shared experiences.

“We’re really glad to see how people are using VR to stay entertained, connected and active during this time of physical distancing,” Isabel Tewes, product manager of AR/VR at Facebook, told WWD. She’s seen people flocking to fitness apps, multiplayer games or virtually touring the world with travel apps.

“VR is helping people get work done, too,” she said. “From remote training to ‘in-person’ meetings with colleagues in London or other parts of California, where people can’t travel.”

A Facebook spokeswoman also noted that people are turning to various tech for e-commerce. “Another interesting trend is how people continue to use AR [augmented reality] to try on or play with virtual items before they buy, which helps to bridge the gap while we can’t go shopping physically,” she added.

AR and VR technologies are often discussed in the same breath, but they offer different use cases.

AR puts a layer of visuals or information of the real world via smart glasses or a smartphone’s camera view — like a Snapchat filter or a Modiface makeup try-on over a selfie, or a Wayfair couch placed in a room. VR is a more immersive proposition involving 360-videos or fully created digital environments.

In fashion, some tech-forward brands and retail platforms — from Levi’s to Shopify — have been watching both technologies closely for quite some time.

“If you take it back to online shopping specifically for denim, we know that the number-one barrier to purchase is concern around fit and style. So, ‘Will this fit me? Does this match my style?’” Brady Stewart, senior vice president of Americas digital for Levi Strauss & Co., explained to WWD. “Augmented reality and virtual reality are going to continue to be incredibly important there in helping to remove barriers to purchase and get consumers more comfortable with what they buy.”

At Shopify, exploring VR was such a priority that the company started a team dedicated to it.

“Our team was initially called the VR team,” said Daniel Beauchamp, Shopify’s head of virtual reality and augmented reality, about the group he launched in 2015. “Our sole focus was around virtual reality. And the reason why we weren’t focused on AR at the time was that smartphones didn’t have the capability to provide AR experiences like they can today…so VR was actually the first area that we focused a lot in, and we still to this day do explorations within VR commerce.”

But experimentation with the tech has begun looking more like an imperative, as consumer demand and retail interest during the COVID-19 crisis converge. It is a rough stage, but it appears to be set for VR to finally realize its potential.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus has hobbled global production pipelines for gadgets.

People work in Appotronics factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, 05 March 2020. Appotronics company produces laser projectors and laser optical engines for film, TV, education, large venue display and other. They have invented and are continuously upgrading original ALPD technology architecture. During the Covid-19 outbreak they are trying to keep their production up which at the moment has reached about 70-80 percent of capacity and company is controlling and advising their employees about coronavirus protection on regular basis. Every two hours security employees on duty are checking body temperature of their colleagues at their workstations.China Covid 19 epidemic economy, Shenzhen - 05 Mar 2020

An electronics factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China, in March 2020.  ALEX PLAVEVSKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

VR’s Challenge

As recently as March, Beauchamp acknowledged that VR commerce was still a bit too early. “From a market perspective, it is still limited by the devices that are out there,” he said.

Indeed, Oculus is revving its engines to generate supply during the pandemic. “Now, we’re just working hard to get VR into more people’s hands, so the distances between us will feel just a bit smaller,” said Facebook’s Tewes.

That’s no small feat.

Like with fashion, a vast proportion of consumer tech products rely on factories in China and other Southeast Asian regions. Manufacturing is the backbone of China’s economy, and its National Bureau of Statistics announced that between January and March, the nation’s economy shrank a whopping 6.8 percent.

These factories have started recovering, but those effects have created major issues for everything from availability of Apple iPhones to VR headsets.

“How are you gonna get VR out to Joe and Jane Smith in Main Street, USA? You can’t — Oculus Quest is sold out,” said Ramon Llamas, research director on the devices and displays team at research firm IDC. “It’s probably going to be sold out for the next couple of quarters, or a month at the very least.”

IDC’s latest report on market impacts on the augmented and virtual reality sectors illustrates the challenge VR has in gaining wider adoption.

According to the firm, VR headset shipments are set to drop, because of COVID-19-related production disruptions. IDC forecasts a year-over-year decline of 10.5 percent in the first quarter of 2020, followed by a 24.1 percent decline in the second quarter.

And although tech companies like Oculus may note the rise in interest from sectors like retail, it hasn’t focused on developing targeted commerce tools to support it.

The other issue is that, while some brands see virtual experiences as crucial right now, not all of them are convinced.

“At this moment we are more focused on the immediate needs of our customers — giving back to them and making the process as light and easy as possible,” Felipe Araujo, former senior director of e-commerce at DVF Studio and chief digital officer of footwear brand Cariuma. Those efforts include offering extended return windows, free and fast delivery, flexible payment methods and creating content. But not VR.

“We do think that in the long term, shopping behaviors and experience on and off-line will have to evolve,” he said. “[Still,] we believe that touching the physical product is an experience that can never be replaced.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many in the fashion industry. What’s less evident is how long it may last. One effect of the pandemic is that it’s accelerating tech adoption, forcing decisions that otherwise would have come years down the line.

As for the looming downturn in VR shipments, it may complicate matters, but only in the short term. IDC expects a rebound in the second half of the year to the tune of nearly 7.1 million total shipments for the year, up 23.6 percent from 2019.

A render of Youcan’s virtual environment.  Courtesy image

The Road Ahead for VR

Bolstered by the experience of working with the Panama government on economic recovery and the credibility gained from re-creating Dolce & Gabbana’s store in VR — a project set to launch sometime this month — Youcan has its eye on extending its proprietary WebVR technology to other corners of the fashion world.

WebVR, as a general term, is not new. Companies like Mozilla have been working on their own versions — though in the case of its Firefox-based tech, the browser-based development is still intended for viewing inside of headsets.

Youcan’s version of WebVR is different. It allows shoppers to browse a virtual store using desktop or mobile web browsers. Those virtual spaces are intended to mimic the experience of walking through a shop, complete with departments and merchandise racks. According to Trincao, the company is focused on making the experience as realistic as possible.

The shopper can roam around and, if interested, click on an item to reveal an online product page to purchase. 

The company creates and customizes the scene, and because it designs everything, it has control over the quality of the experience, Trincao said.

It’s a marriage of physical and digital shopping that, if successful, could be more immersive and engaging than looking at static images on a web page. Plus, there’s no commercial lease. Youcan structures the arrangements as flat fees, a cut of sales or other terms, depending on the needs of the retailer. And, the ceo added, it has no current plans to hold onto the data, like Amazon.

“Macy’s, luxury brands, they are being eaten by online platforms,” he said. “And then because they don’t have also the ability to drive too many clients to physical spaces, the cost of real estate is huge. So, for example, Macy’s already strategized to close a lot of stores nationwide in the U.S. because of the cost of retail.

“If Macy’s is able to deliver the same in-person experience virtually, it’s huge. They can grow unlimitedly to thousands of shoppers every day,” he continued. “And they are not stuck to Amazon anymore, because they can have their own innovative virtual environment.”

Trincao wouldn’t say if Macy’s is one of the nearly three dozen deals that he has in the works. For now, he would only say that his near-term focus is on brands sidelined by NYFW’s scuttled plans, as well as fashion events and other projects spanning pop-ups, stores and malls across designer and luxury categories.

Longer-term, the company is interested in fleshing out more of the VR proposition. And some of those plans even include a headset — Trincao is accepting preorders for a pair of sleek, futuristic-looking goggles that can externally display what the user is seeing in VR.

Youcan’s upcoming VR glasses. The company is already accepting preorders.  Courtesy photo

The concept art looks far slimmer than standard VR headsets, approaching smart glasses territory. It’s not clear if the tech works as well as a full-fledged Oculus Quest, but that’s not the point.

If it can squeeze a decent enough experience into a small factor and offer a robust shopping platform backed by some of retail’s best names, then it has a chance of accomplishing something Oculus hasn’t yet — broader mainstream adoption.