Ask the VR Photography Experts

Q: There are many stores in a local mall that I would like to approach about producing online “VR stores” for. I’m not interested in the mall itself, but rather the individual stores so that they can offer shoppers a virtual shopping experience. I want to do something like the Apple Company Store that was a part of the original QTVR Authoring software. Can you tell me how to best sell this concept?

A: I hate to be a wet blanket, but while there’s incredible potential in this concept, the retail market hasn’t quite embraced it yet.

I'm the photographer who shot the original Apple Company Store tour that was featured in the original QTVR Authoring Tools Suite. It was done back in 1994. The intention was to show the commercial potential of QuickTime VR in a most logical use - online retail.

We shot 50-60 nodes over a three night period, followed by dozens of object movies of Apple products shot in Apple's multimedia lab. They were all linked together as an example of what could potentially be done with a large store and hundreds, if not thousands, of products.

To date, I have not seen a single online retailer, mall or other commercial operation use this VR system as it was originally intended (and as you describe), although there have been some limited iterations wherein one or two panoramic nodes were linked to a handful of object movies (or other information hot spots) commercially. This is not to say that they don't exist, only that I'm not aware of them.

As the original QTVR photographer, I got quite a bit of referral business, and many queries for projects early on from commercial retail developers who saw the potential of the technology. None of them, however, wound up pursuing it. The reasons... there were far easier and less expensive ways to sell their products online, which required their online shoppers to jump through far fewer hoops. Bandwidth was (and still is to a great extent) a limiting factor. Users are unwilling to wait for more than 5-10 seconds to see an image, whether interactive or not, and they certainly aren't enthusiastic about having to first download and install a multi-megabyte application in order to view it properly. Look at and other major online retailers to understand how much more effective simple visual approaches have been.

Does this mean we should stop trying? Not at all. VR's time will come, and it will come sooner the more often we all create VR imagery of the highest quality. We must continue to show potential clients work that impresses them so much that VR will remain as a nurtured seed in their minds. At some time, all those seeds will sprout. However, the more junk (bad VR) we collectively throw into the mix, the longer it will take for all the good seeds to bear fruit. One has to be in the VR business for the long haul, in my opinion.

This is not an explosive growth business, although it certainly holds that potential. The "gee whiz" novelty factor has long since worn off. Now, VR must be sold to clients based on a value it brings that they can't get anywhere else. You (we) must prove to our clients that THEIR clients will buy more of THEIR products and services, before they will commit to the (relative) complexity of VR.

You are unlikely to get the online marketing result you want through your local shopping centers, which depend almost exclusively on walk-in business. Look for the hook that will somehow convert potential online browsers into the walk-in traffic they rely upon.

Keep thinking creatively, both in your photography AND in your business approaches.

- Scott Highton