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Alibaba adds virtual reality to its online shops

Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba is going to open its first online virtual reality (VR) demonstration shop by the end of this month, with ambitions to launch a large-scale rollout by the end of the year.

The shop will simulate the experience of shopping in a physical store. Consumers use their own VR headsets or glasses to navigate within the shop. They are first greeted by a robotic associate in the store who also recommends new products based on the past shopping history and preferences of the customer.

At a press briefing in Shanghai last week, an Alibaba representative wearing a Vive VR helmet from HTC showed how a shopper could take a tour of a 3D digital store.

The demonstration showed a robotic store associate talking to the visitor and recommending new products. Shoppers can rotate products they see in the virtual store by moving the controller that connects to the Vive helmet, and even ask for a model to show how the product works or is worn. Users can also use the controller to click the buy button to purchase the item in the digital store.

“VR is a great way to demonstrate products or services, especially for some categories, like furniture and travel products,” Zhuang Zhuoran, senior director of mobile at Alibaba, said at the briefing. “It also adds more fun to shopping.”

However, converting a real product to the digital, three-dimensional equivalent today may cost several hundred yuan. “The cost is high, and we hope to reduce it to several yuan in the future,” Zhuang said.

Zhuang added that in the future Alibaba may send consumers VR gear for free so that they can try out the new way of shopping.

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